2013-06-14 / Front Page

Town Hall Frustrates Some

By Kevin Boyle

St. Francis de Sales Church in Belle Harbor filled with people on Monday evening, June 10th hoping to learn about the City’s Build It Back program, the name for the City’s plan to spend $720 million dollars of Sandy relief money for housing recovery.

The town hall meeting was hosted by Congressman Gregory Meeks who began by presenting a Congressional Citation to Monsignor John Brown, who will soon be leaving St. Francis to lead a parish in Brooklyn. Brown was recognized for “his outstanding role in providing relief and assistance to Belle Harbor and other Rockaway residents impacted by Hurricane Sandy.”

After Brown received a plaque, the meeting unfolded as a question and answer session. The guests included Joseph Palozzola, Governor Cuomo’s Vice President of Intergovernmental Relations. He offered little information. One woman asked him about the buyout program offered by the Governor some months ago. She said Broad Channel was being considered as a place that would possibly be part of a buyout plan but without explanation that plan seemed to evaporate and she wanted to know why. He had no clear answer and was essentially ignored by others who came with questions about post- Sandy recovery. In his defense, it could be said that the State has its focus on counties outside city limits.

The main guest was Brad Gair of the NYC Office of Housing Recovery. Gair is a well-informed, polished speaker with an ability to empathize and understand frustration. He previously worked at FEMA and has extensive experience in recovery issues as a result of working in Louisiana after Katrina. He acknowledges government screw-ups and even points them out. But as some in the crowd reminded him, he is the government as well. A former FEMA official telling the crowd that the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Small Business Administration “should have known better” was cold comfort to many.

Regular Wave readers in the audience found out little new. Last week’s edition of The Wave spelled out the plans and hopes of Build It Back but highlighted major challenges and these issues were front and center on Monday night. The matter of the SBA loan counting against any grant award remains one of the main hurdles for anyone seeking monetary relief.

Although The Wave drew examples and illustrated the potential trouble, it turns out the process is actually worse than described. As explained, if a homeowner turned down the SBA loan offer, the amount still counts against any total need. While that is frustrating for many, here’s the kicker: if you actually took the SBA loan and still need a grant you must go back to the SBA and request another loan, more borrowed money, before you can be considered for a grant.

The groan in the church echoed for long seconds.

Throughout the three hour meeting, Gair continually urged people to register for the program adding that a case worker, a recovery specialist, would help them through the process. He offered very little promise that people would receive funds but held out hope that HUD would listen to the City about changing its guidelines.

For his part, Meeks mostly selected people from the crowd in random fashion to ask questions of Gair though he took a few questions himself. When asked what were the chances of the Biggert-Waters Act being repealed, he said, “None.” He said, however, he was working with colleagues to get an amendment passed that would stall runaway insurance premiums but offered little more.

On the flood insurance matter, Gair told the audience that premiums are based on flood elevation levels and that basements are considered the first level of a house. He told a questioner that if a basement is completely empty – even if all utilities were put on the first floor – the empty basement would still count as the first floor as far as figuring insurance premiums. In other words, basements will have to be filled in for homeowners to get a better insurance rate.

Although much of the City Build It Back program is designed for homeowners, renters and co-op owners were encouraged to register for the program as well.

The matter of acquisition was also briefly touched upon by Gair. Acquisition is the city’s name for buying a property from a homeowner who wants to leave a high risk flood area. The City program is different than the State’s in that city properties could be redeveloped whereas State buyout properties would be turned to park or open space. There will be a limited amount of funding for such acquisitions but, according to the Housing Recovery office, other than the limited funds available, there are few restrictions in seeking a city buyout. Although it was widely assumed that V Zone owners would be the only ones in line for acquisition, The Wave was told on Wednesday that “A Zone” owners could apply as well. A city offer would reflect post-Sandy market value and would include some money for relocation. Those interested in acquisition must review matters with a recovery specialist.

To register for Build It Back, call 311 or go to NYC.GOV and follow links for NYC Recovery.

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