2013-12-27 / Top Stories

Sending a Message

By Katie McFadden

Photo by Dan Guarino Photo by Dan Guarino If you’ve driven down Cross Bay Boulevard in Broad Channel lately, it’s hard to miss a small house with a big message plastered on the front. “NYC Build it Back, FEMA, HUD & Flood Ins=Failure.” It’s the personal billboard put up by homeowner Michael Del Pino. After being displaced from his severely damaged home for more than a year, Del Pino is fed up and he’s letting the big guys know it.

“Every step of the recovery process has been frustrating,” Del Pino said. More than a year has passed since four feet of floodwater left his one-story Broad Channel home in ruins. Del Pino decided to create a billboard to let outsiders know that although the neighborhood might look okay from the outside, the inside of some homes may not reflect that. “People don’t realize what’s going on inside these houses,” he said. “I wanted to let those people know that everything is not great. We’re not back. We’re struggling.”

Del Pino, his wife and his two children aren’t back home yet. They’re still paying $1,600 a month in rent to live in an apartment while making mortgage payments on the house they can’t live in.

In a letter posted on the billboard on his home, Del Pino explained his frustration toward groups that have failed Sandy victims. “FEMA, HUD and the City of New York, through its NYC Build It Back program, have been a failure to so many of us. The Biggert- Waters Flood Act, FEMA’s refusal to grant rental assistance, insurance payouts that don’t reflect what it would actually cost to rebuild a “substantially damaged” home, and now NYC Build It Back’s “Prioritization” lists based on income, and their overall slow response have been failures to the victims of Hurricane Sandy,” he wrote.

After Del Pino’s entire house was damaged by water, he began to find that many elements of his home are no longer within building code, so they can’t be easily fixed with sheetrock and new flooring. New FEMA flood maps indicate that Del Pino’s home will also need to be elevated. Professionals have determined that the house would be better off being completely torn down.

Del Pino says he has a $250K insurance policy, but he only received $88,000, which isn’t enough to rebuild from scratch. Del Pino hired an attorney to fight his insurance companies, New York Property and Allstate. “I'm grateful if they are able to get us money that we are entitled to, however, that comes at a cost. I will lose one-third of the additional funds to the attorney fees, which is a waste of money that could have been applied to my recovery,” he said. “If my flood insurance company paid out the $250,000 right away, I’d be back in my house already.”

Not having enough money to completely rebuild a house, Del Pino turned to the Build it Back Program and now he’s waiting. “You can’t rebuild a house with $88,000. We can’t do anything until Build it Back certifies what level of damage there is. They need to say what needs to happen to the house” he said.

After being designated as a Priority 3, the lowest possible rating by the NYC Build it Back Program, it’s likely that the Del Pinos won’t be back in their home anytime soon. Del Pino’s home is categorized as severely damaged and engineers have told him that the house should be demolished, but that doesn’t matter because Del Pino’s household income is too high. Making a combined $150,000 a year, the Del Pino’s Area Median Income is above 165 percent, so that automatically placed the family as a Priority 3, even though the house is beyond repair.

Despite taking in a high income, Del Pino says the program doesn’t take prior debt into consideration. “I have pre-existing bills and debt that I’m still managing. We were living week to week, paycheck to paycheck before Sandy. This hasn’t made it any better,” Del Pino said. He added that his family has already gone through any savings that they had while replacing items that were destroyed and paying bills and rent and now they’re behind on mortgage payments, which is ruining Del Pino’s credit.

Del Pino says he understands why low-income families are placed in Priority 1, but he believes those with severely damaged or destroyed homes should also be made a first priority, regardless of income.

“I have no problem with low income families receiving money, but they should also look at people like me who might have income, but should also have the opportunity to be Priority 1. Del Pino says that the city has no control over the prioritization guidelines as they were determined by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is allocating the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds.

Del Pino says he simply wants to stop playing the waiting game and for Build it Back to let him know if they will even consider rebuilding his home and if he will receive any money, but since his home has been branded as a Priority 3, Del Pino can’t even get Build it Back to come inspect his home and give him some sort of idea of how he should proceed. “I just want to know if I could move forward, knowing where I stand and that eventually money will come,” he said.

Del Pino doesn’t think it is right that the money granted for Sandy recovery is being put toward infrastructure projects first, rather than going to families that can’t get back into their homes. “The city has a lot of money and it isn’t going to homeowners,” he said. In a letter posted to his billboard, Del Pino mentions some of the projects that have received Build it Back funds. “Knickerbocker Village in Manhattan, Condo Units in the Rockaways, and NYC Housing Developments will get generators, have heating systems moved and have elevators refurbished ahead of homes like this being repaired/rebuilt. Meanwhile, people in this situation have to continue to pay a Mortgage on these homes and Rent where they are living,” he wrote.

Aside from putting the message out in front of his house, Del Pino has been active in trying to bring attention to his frustrations. He has attended several Build it Back and community meetings. He has made phone calls, sent emails and written letters to elected officials and Build it Back. He also voices his frustrations through social media accounts and urges his neighbors to keep up the fight.

According to the Build it Back website, 19,920 single-family homeowners registered for the program as of November 21st. Of those, 1,019 inspections have been done. Only 147 owners have been told how much money they can receive and only four have selected what award package they want. Construction hasn’t begun on any of the homes. According to the site, $306,000,000 has been allocated towards Single-Family Rehab and Reconstruction and $9,600,000 has been spent so far.

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