2014-02-14 / Columnists

Official Point Of View

Build It Back Is Broken
By City Councilman Eric Ulrich


Councilman Eric Ulrich Councilman Eric Ulrich It would be a gross understatement to say that the Build it Back (BIB) program has not lived up to the promise it had when it was first announced. Every day, my office is inundated with calls from homeowners with their own horror story about their experience with the program. I could write a column simply listing problems…. but The Wave would need more ink.

Onerous and complex rules set up by the federal government meant to protect tax dollars and make sure money is spent properly are at the root of the issues coming out of Build it Back, but they are surely not the cause of all of them.

When first started, Build it Back ramped up by hiring a squad of employees, many of whom had never done this type of work before. Though well intentioned, BIB staffers began the process of soliciting applications and working through the volumes of paperwork that was collected.

Instead of assigning dedicated case managers to applicants, like many other relief organizations do, BIB chose to open customer service centers. Staff members had a steep learning curve and answers to many basic questions were not forthcoming. Disaster survivors who had barely escaped FEMA and SBA with their sanity intact were thrown into a new whirlwind of bureaucracy. This time, however, program policies and forms kept changing as BIB scrambled to keep up with HUD requirements while creating a big bureaucracy all its own.

Co-ops, condos and multi-family dwellings were referred to a BIB affiliate, run by a private housing group, where standards were equally challenging. Forms and documents were lost at an alarming rate, with some residents going back to the customer centers on multiple occasions.

After months of waiting for BIB to contact them, some applicants were finally scheduled for inspections. But the inspection process was not allowed to commence if work was on-going on the damaged home. Almost everyone had some sort of construction going on, so inspections were rescheduled.

After filing, BIB began to mention income eligibility requirements, and “area median incomes” (AMI) as part of determining when and how people would get help. Although these regulations are mandated by HUD, people weren’t made aware of this early on, and many homeowners found out they might now be ineligible for help, or sent to the end of the line. Many people did the simple math based on the amounts of money that was awarded and realized the pot was much smaller than necessary to help everyone. Adding insult to injury, allocated monies from HUD were also going to repair privately owned buildings like local healthrelated facilities, and city housing developments. Some of the money that was advertised to help people get back in their homes was now going elsewhere, making the pot even smaller.

BIB needed to establish a priority order for awarding monies according to federal regulations. But finding out your priority status proved difficult, and even if you found out, there were subcategories and little explanation as to where an individual homeowner stood in line.

Eventually, BIB established a customer service hotline. Calls initially went to an answering machine while call takers were trained to handle calls, and when calls were answered, necessary information was often inaccessible.

The number one complaint to my office is that Build it Back does not call people back and worse, loses paperwork. Can’t blame the federal rules for that. It is unconscionable that homeowners can go MONTHS waiting to hear from BIB.

Federal regulations require that there is no duplication of award monies, which makes sense, as taxpayers shouldn’t pay to fix parts of your house that insurance already covered. But somehow, the feds decided that an offer to help you with an SBA loan, that you decided not to accept, would count as though they already helped you, making many people ineligible for a BIB funds.

Government regulations also required applications to include financial information in an attempt to assess their priority for help. This included financials on everyone in the home, including tenants. Tenants aren’t going to help pay for the damages to someone else’s property, and in many cases, they lived upstairs and sustained less damage than homeowners.

We’re going on nine months now since BIB was announced, and we still can’t point to a significant number of homeowners who have been helped by the pro- gram. Recently, those who were classified as priority one to receive help right away, were now told that HUD would only allow homes that were deemed “safe, decent and sanitary” to receive awards, which meant inspections for things like lead and asbestos. Why weren’t these inspections included in the original inspection process?

One of my biggest frustrations with the program is that by BIB’s own accounting, more than 1,500 applicants from my council district (out of 6,340-by far the highest number of people enrolled of any council district in the city) have been deemed “non-responsive” despite mailings and phone calls, and have fallen through the cracks of the program. I can imagine that a large portion of these people have given up but offers by me and my staff to try and “find” these people have gone rebuffed. Because of federal privacy concerns, their names and contact information cannot be shared with us.

So, how do we fix this?

We acknowledge the problems. To her credit, Kathryn Mallon, the new Director of the BIB program, is well aware of these challenges. Although not the original person responsible for this program, and coming on board after initial mistakes were made, Ms. Mallon has been working 24/7, even taking calls from community leaders late at night. She has instituted a checklist system so visitors leaving a BIB Center know exactly what information they need to return with. She is also considering stationing experienced BIB staff at the exit to every Center, to make sure people don’t leave with unanswered questions.

The new mayoral administration should evaluate the current plans and do everything in its power to expedite the award process. Many of my constituents are still out of their homes, paying their mortgage while also paying rent to live somewhere else until they can return home. We are in the process of meeting with the new administration to reevaluate the program. 1) Money allocated for city housing and privately owned buildings that are already up and running should be reallocated to homeowners still not able to return home. This needs to be done before monies are spent shoring up city facilities, repairing privately owned property or improving city housing. These projects are important, but not as important as getting people back in their own homes.

2) Give Ms. Mallon the help she needs to get the job done. Use existing city council staff (including my own) who are already on the payroll and know their communities the ability to access information to advise applicants, which will free up BIB staff to process applications faster.

3) Find people who are obviously priority one and need help and start giving out money now, giving all of us hope that the program is working toward success.

4) Assign every priority one homeowner a dedicated Case Manager, someone they can build a rapport with, instead of “starting over” every time they call BIB. In fact, assign some of these Case Managers to the most inundated neighborhoods, so they can understand the nuanced issues that exist in places like Broad Channel, Breezy Point and West Hamilton Beach. Once priority one homes has been given awards, repeat the process for priority two, keeping experienced Case Managers in their assigned areas.

Finally, the City Council has created a new “Resiliency and Recovery” Committee, that I am a member of, that is tasked with oversight of Hurricane Sandy recovery issues. My colleague Councilmember Richards and I have asked the chair of the committee to hold oversight hearings on the Build It Back program. That should happen soon and will be announced beforehand. Ideally, it would be great if a handful of homeowners could come to City Hall and testify in person. However, even if you are unable to attend I would welcome any questions that you might want asked that I could bring up at the hearing. Please submit those to my office via phone, fax, email, Facebook or mention it on twitter to my attention on the day of the hearing and I will get to as many as possible. The hearing will also be webcast live on the City Council website for those who are interested.

Rest assured I will do my part to hold city agencies accountable and make this program work for the people it was intended to help in the first place. It will take nothing short of a miracle to make that happen but we’ve come too far to turn back now.

I am not prepared to give up hope that one day my constituents in Rockaway, Broad Channel and every other community hit hard by the storm can be restored and made whole again, no matter how long it takes.

Eric Ulrich is a City Councilman representing District 32.

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