Zero Homes Repaired. 19,920 to Go

If Tolstoy were alive today, he might say: Every unhappy Build it Back family is unhappy in its own way.

Build it Back is the city’s program for Sandy-damaged homes, and it has drawn numerous complaints. But each one is a little different.

Tami Cherichetti of Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, was told she had to resubmit some lost paperwork — which ended up being on a customer service representative’s desk.

Scott and Cindy Plissner of Dongan Hills, Staten Island, said one inspector offered to have their whole basement refinished. Then another team came by and said they could not do that, but offered to make repairs upstairs, which was not even touched by Sandy.

Alison Kase of Broad Channel, Queens, got so tired of waiting, she enlisted a local charity, Friends of Rockaway, to repair her home instead.

“It infuriates me. Here I had been, playing by the rules,” she said, “extending my faith that my government was going to do as they prescribed that they were going to do.”

Sixteen months after the storm, not one home in New York City has been rebuilt or repaired with housing aid provided from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Sandy federal aid bill. And while the delays have much to do with tight federal regulations, the program has also suffered from choices by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his aides that limited funding for the program and added complexity. In addition, one of the private companies running the program bungled the intake process.

A Build it Back official said that the processing has sped up in recent weeks. By Sunday, 154 households had agreed to the awards offered by the city and another 2,407 have been offered awards and are either considering taking them or contesting them. Still, those categories account for less than 13 percent of the 19,920 owners of one- to four-family building owners who have applied to the program.

“These are absurdly low numbers,” said Joe Pupello, executive director of Zone A New York, a nonprofit organization helping residents navigate the recovery process. “I think that one of the biggest problems is that people are starting to wonder whether or not they are going to get any help at all.”

New York State, by contrast, has given out more than $360 million through buyouts, reimbursements and pre-payments on repairs to more than 5,000 homeowners, according to Barbara Brancaccio of the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery. New Jersey has disbursed about $200 million through reimbursements, pre-payments and other awards, according to Lisa Ryan of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

Some housing advocates have criticized New Jersey’s program, in particular, for initially denying high numbers of people seeking aid. Many were later approved. (The denials were to some degree a result of the state relying on  FEMA's previous damage assessments rather than undertaking the more time-consuming process of sending out its own inspectors.) And the architects of New York City’s program said they wanted to focus their money on homes that were still uninhabitable, rather than reimbursing people for repairs already made. But that strategy has resulted in a far more complex process.

Build it Back’s lethargy can be traced back to the day when HUD announced the first tranche of its Sandy aid: Feb. 6, 2013. The money was parsed out in roughly equal chunks — about $1.8 billion each for New Jersey, New York state and  New York City. The type of funding, called Community Development Block Grants, allows local officials to come up with proposals for how to spend their money.

Mayor Bloomberg appeared far ahead of his peers in Trenton and Albany at the time. At a news conference held in the Blue Room at City Hall the very same day, Mayor Bloomberg said he had already developed a plan for more than $1 billion of the money: $720 million would go for housing; $185 million for business recovery; and $140 million for “infrastructure resiliency” — projects that would later feature prominently in his much-heralded “Stronger and Resilient New York” plan to prepare the city against long-term climate effects.

That funding mix seemed to contain plenty of money to begin repairs the city’s damaged housing stock. And Bloomberg and his aides seemed intent on getting the money out quickly.

“We expect that most of these programs will be under way in late April or early May,” Bloomberg told reporters that day. “So that’s a good time frame for you to focus on.”

Cas Holloway, deputy mayor for operations at the time, then added, “We’re going to work to try to get the money out as contemporaneous as possible with the application process and we’re going to do everything we can to beat the time frame.”

But it turned out to take until early May just for HUD to approve New York City’s plan. After taking into account administrative costs, only $648 million was really left for housing. And, given the needs of the New York City’s public housing complexes and large apartment buildings, the city really only had $306 million dollars to repair one- to four-family homes, according to the approved application. For the 20,000 homeowners who were expected to apply to Build it Back, that would come out to $15,000 per building — not even the cost of a new kitchen.

The lack of funds led to two kinds of delays. First, the city originally refused to reimburse people for repairs they had made out of pocket to their homes. When, under pressure from Sen. Charles Schumer and others, the city agreed to reimbursements, it did so reluctantly, stipulating in the approved application that “applicants seeking reimbursements may, in general, be given lower initial priority for processing than applicants who are requesting funds for essential rehabilitation or reconstruction of their homes.”

Reimbursements, as governors Cuomo and Christie learned, are a quick way to get money into the hands of struggling homeowners.

Second, while officials expected they would receive another tranche, and maybe a third, of HUD money, they did not know when it would come or how much it would be.

So Build it Back developed an elaborate system to make sure the poorest and hardest hit got to the front of the line and began assigning each applicant Priority One, Two or Three.

“We are going to start, as we said all along, with those families who have the greatest financial need based on household income and highest level of damage,” Brad Gair, the Build it Back director, said in an interview with WNYC in July.

But to assign each applicant to a priority group, the city first had to process paperwork, verify eligibility and sometimes do in-person damage assessments of people’s homes — all for many more people than it could afford to help right away. Some of those steps were required by federal regulations intended to prevent fraud. But the system required a lot of up-front work that did not yield on-the-ground results quickly.

By contrast, New Jersey and New York state each allocated more of their HUD money for housing than New York City did — $1.16 billion and $838 million respectively, according to the applications approved last April and May. They did that even though the states had less need that was not being met by insurance or other payments. According to the approved applications, New Jersey said it had $2.5 billion in housing needs, New York state (outside of the five boroughs) had $3 billion. By contrast, New York City said it faced $6.6 billion in unmet housing needs.

It may have been impossible for Bloomberg to have put as much money towards housing as Christie and Cuomo did in proportion to New York City’s need. But Bloomberg also put a far higher priority on funding long-term resiliency measures than did Trenton or Albany — although those measures are still, nine months after the funding was approved, still in their early stages. The city also planned to spend more on administrative costs than New Jersey or New York State, according to the applications.

Gair and Deputy Mayor Holloway, two officials who closely monitored the HUD program, declined through spokesmen to speak on the record. 

In his July interview with WNYC, Gair acknowledged the process was taking longer than he had expected, but he said the pace of work was picking up.

“We think that by early September, we will be starting to do repairs,” he said.

But in fall 2013, Gair stopped running day-to-day operations to work on broader Sandy issues. A Department of Environmental Protection official, Kathryn Mallon, took his place. Mallon suspended damage inspections for a few weeks in October in order to rethink the program, according to a Build it Back official, who did not want his name used because he is not a spokesman. That, in turn, temporarily disrupted the repair pipeline, even though, according to the official, the overhaul ended up streamlining procedures significantly.

Also, according to the official, the city discovered that customer service representatives were failing to upload documents correctly to the central database. Some homeowners were told they needed to refile the papers — although the official said only a few people were affected and that the problem has been fixed.

A spokesman for the URS Corporation, which runs the customer service operation for Build it Back, did not respond by deadline to two requests for comment.

The new mayor, Bill de Blasio, said earlier this week that he knows Build it Back has to be fixed.

“We’re doing a full review and we’re setting our own framework of how we want to proceed and our own personnel, and then we are going to announce that,” he said. 

According to the City Hall press office, the current Build it Back director, Kathryn Mallon, is leaving Friday. She will be replaced on an interim basis by her deputy, Benjamin Jones. A permanent director, along with an overhaul, is expected to be announced “in the coming weeks.”

In its final days in office, the Bloomberg administration appeared to acknowledge that it had put too little money into the housing program. After HUD awarded the city its second tranche of aid last November — $1.4 billion — officials came up with a new plan for spending it. It proposed spending more than $1 billion of the new money toward housing. Of that, $700 million will go to Build it Back, tripling the amount available for that program, according to a draft posted online. The administration also proposed no new spending on resiliency, diverted money that was destined for economic development to the Build it Back program, and kept administration and planning costs fairly flat.