Inspecting Build it Back
Belle Harbor resident Sandy Weiser was a bit suspicious when he was told that NYC Build it Back would be coming to perform an inspection that would take three hours long, so he invited The Wave to come observe the process on January 20th.
When Sandy hit, the entire basement of Weiser’s family home was flooded and the first floor had almost a foot of water. His insurance company, NY Property Insurance Underwriting Association, didn’t pay a dime and Weiser had a small flood policy that didn’t cover the costs of the damage. Since the storm, he was able to hire contractors to replace the electric, plumbing, floors, walls and beams of the basement apartment and to repair the damage done to the first floor. He paid out of pocket to fix many of these things.
Weiser, whose home was designated as a Priority 1 by Build it Back, was told that three different inspectors would come to his home over the course of three hours, starting at 1:00 p.m. Thinking that three hours and three people was a bit much, Weiser had concerns that his home was being assessed for building code violations which could be used against him. After letting the inspectors, who were subcontractors, into his home, Weiser made sure to check their identification.
The first inspector, who was testing for lead paint in the home, arrived before 1 p.m. He said that many houses built before 1978 have a high percentage of lead and it is important for any contractors who might be doing construction on a damaged home to know about the levels and if abatement is necessary. He mentioned that lead paint is especially a hazard for kids under seven, which didn’t apply to Weiser’s home. The inspector took readings in every room, which took about an hour to complete.
He explained that inspectors create a report based on their findings which are sent to Build it Back and the results are discussed during a follow up meeting, which Weiser already had scheduled.
The second inspector was a damage assessment inspector. He showed up half an hour after the scheduled appointment, but said that he thought the appointment was at 2 p.m. and that he was early. He refused to answer any direct questions from The Wave. He told Weiser that he has been inspecting homes for the program since July.
The inspector went to each room of the house and made observations, took measurements of the rooms, took photos of the house with a phone camera and made sketches of the property. He also asked questions about what type of repairs were done and what had been replaced.
Even though floodwaters had only damaged Weiser’s basement and first floor, the inspector said he had to look at every room. On the second floor, he did a quick check of the rooms, paying close attention to possible ceiling damage.
The damage inspector also informed
Weiser than an asbestos inspector wouldn’t be coming because Weiser had documented asbestos removal some time earlier.
When the damage assessment inspector left after about two hours, Weiser said he was pleased with the overall inspection. He acknowledged that the inspectors were friendly and he was more at ease after it was completed.
He was worried that the inspection might be more thorough than it was and would include advanced steps like opening walls.
Weiser added that he was uncomfortable with the lack of transparency when it comes to Build it Back. Part of his concerns before the inspection was due to the fact that Build it Back didn’t tell him what would happen during the process. Many of his questions to the inspectors were answered with “I don’t know” and “You’ll have to see what they tell you at the follow- up meeting.”
He’s also frustrated that no one can seem to tell him what exactly Build it Back will reimburse him for and what sort of schedule the program follows.
The Wave spoke to Build it Back Director Kathryn Mallon to try to get some of those answers. When asked what exactly applicants are reimbursed for, she said, “We reimburse people for the repairs they did to their home which were paid for out of pocket.” She added that the reimbursement is based on a calculation and isn’t just based on what receipts add up to. Once a damage assessment is done, a value is calculated for the work that was completed. Build it Back takes a look at how insurance,
FEMA and SBA loans were spent toward any work done and will only reimburse for the rest of the work that was paid for out of the homeowner ’s pocket.
Mallon said that at this time, Build it Back only has enough federal funding to do partial reimbursement for low income registrants. The type of work that the program reimburses for is the same kind of work that the program does during repairs. This includes fixing bathrooms, bedrooms, dry wall, flooring, kitchens, siding on a house, roof work, porch work and standard home improvements. It doesn’t apply to luxury items like washers, dryers, microwaves and furniture.
She also said that all of the work that was done must meet standards set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Lead and asbestos is regulated by HUD, which is why these inspections are done. If it is found that lead or asbestos mitigation is necessary , Build it Back can carry out these tasks or the owner can hire their own contractor, but a reimbursement cannot be given until the home is deemed “decent, safe and sanitary” by HUD standards.
When asked why it is necessary for inspectors to look at the entire house and not just the damaged area, Mallon said this is also a requirement of HUD. “In order to be eligible for reimbursement, we have to make sure the entire home is safe and sanitary,” she said. They want to make sure that there are no serious life or safety issues in the home, like lead and asbestos problems. “Anything we find in the home that would be a life or safety issue would be on the list of improvements that Build it Back would fix,” Mallon said. She said that the information collected is not used against an applicant and that the program cannot issue any building code violations and these are not the type of issues that the inspectors are looking for.
When it comes to scheduling, Mallon said that once an applicant has verified their income and they are designated as a Priority 1, a damage assessment is scheduled immediately.
Following the damage assessment, it takes about 20 to 30 days until an applicant has their first options review meeting (ORM), in which Build it Back tells them what their options are and what sort of awards they qualify for. This gives an applicant another chance to hand in any missing documents or receipts, for things such as hotel stays after the storm, or they can make a decision to accept an award. “We’ve held 1,200 ORMs and scheduled 2,600 more, offering assistance totaling an estimated $97 million,” Mallon said. During those meetings, only 20 percent of applicants immediately accepted an award offer.
Mallon says that the most important things that are needed when applying to the program are documents that allow the program to verify income: a required F6 or F7 form if applicable and/ or a 1040 form. Also critical is the F13 form, in which a homeowner says how they’ve spent any insurance money, grants and loans. All of these forms are available online, at Build it Back centers or can be requested by mail. Having receipts for hotels that were paid for with FEMA money can be beneficial since it is a legitimate expense. “If we can’t see it, we can’t count it in their favor,” Mallon said.
Mallon admits that Build it Back got off to a slow start, but things are starting to pick up. “People are frustrated and angry. It’s almost like we can’t work fast enough, but right now, we’re at a place where we are moving as quickly as we can physically move,” she said. The program is continuing to double the amount of meetings they have with applicants each month.