2014-04-18 / Community

A Tale Of Two Build It Backs

Mayor, Comptroller Both Aim To Fix
By Kevin Boyle

So, there’s something everyone agrees on. Build It Back has been a mess. The de Blasio administration has blamed federal guidelines and the Bloomberg administration. The feds, including Secretary of HUD Shaun Donovan and Senator Charles Schumer, have blamed the city, pointing their fingers at both administrations.

The current City Hall team says they now have a plan to make it work better. Meanwhile, another city agency says, you better, they’ll be watching.

Scott Stringer, the New York City Comptroller, came to The Wave on Wednesday to announce that his office would be assigning top personnel to review the city’s Build It Back program. A day later, Mayor de Blasio announced that Build It Back has been revamped and is doing better than ever.

Stringer said, “I am announcing the creation of a Sandy Oversight Unit and as part of that Unit’s first order of business, we will be auditing all aspects of the ‘Build it Back’ program. We will ensure government works for the people while finding ways to get New Yorkers the help they need.” The comptroller said he’ll be holding Town Halls in Rockaway and Breezy Point in coming weeks so he can get feedback from residents still frustrated by the housing recovery efforts.

The de Blasio report, “One City, Rebuilding Together” is a 33 page overview consisting of a retrospective of what has been accomplished (with an emphasis on the positive since January), ongoing challenges, and a plan for “looking forward.”

While much of the report is goal-oriented a few notable measures have been put in place. The plan calls for expanding acquisition and reimbursement policies. The plan calls for eliminating “priority levels to ensure that no applicant’s income will be a reason to disqualify him or her from the rebuild, reimbursement, or acquisition pathways; this follows the administration’s announcement in late March that it will eliminate priority levels for homes that must be rebuilt.”

For repairs completed prior to October 29, 2013, homeowners will be reimbursed for out of pocket expenses not covered by other benefits at a rate of 60 percent.

As for those “other benefits,” there still remains the sticky issue of the SBA loan. As Wave readers know, Small Business Administration loans are counted as a benefit received, even if a homeowner declined the loan. So, for example, if a homeowner needed $100,000 to repair his home and had been offered a $75,000 SBA loan but turned it down, the $75,000 would count against any amount Build It Back might offer.

Amy Peterson, the new Build It Back boss, says counselors and case workers are helping homeowners get past this hurdle and aim to effectively “wipe it off the books.” There is, however, no set rule in place. The individual counselors or case workers are crucial to the process. It is entirely possible that results will be different depending upon the effectiveness of the counselor(s). Peterson said thorough training and supervisory channels will be established so that counseling is as uniform as possible – though uncertainty is still a factor.

Just this week an employee of The Wave was told that if she elected to have her house elevated – she and her husband would have to find temporary housing and assume all costs including storage. Is that true? Peterson was asked. “That’s one of things we’re working on,” she said or as the plan itself stated: Developing a plan to better address temporary displacement during construction is one of the goals.

Acquisition for redevelopment is another option being offered. If the home needs to be rebuilt or elevated, the owner can voluntarily sell the home to the government. Build It Back is partnering with New York State on this program.

In a phone interview with The Wave, Peterson said, having a seeing-is-believing view is understandable given the program’s many starts and stops. She said it was important, however, to let people know a plan is in place and there will be more outreach than ever.

A spokesperson agreed that the plan is largely “aspirational” but the mayor promised something tangible. By Labor Day, he is committed to 500 new construction starts and 500 reimbursement checks being issued.

The reimbursement figure can be looked at in a couple of ways. Previously, it was said that reimbursements – if they were to happen at all—would be many months or even years off. At various times, Build It Back officials have said that first and second priority cases would occur before reimbursement and that more Sandy money (the third tranche as it’s called) would likely be necessary before homeowners got reimbursed. Now, with reimbursements getting moved up in the priority chain and being doled out sooner, the 500 by Labor Day figure might be seen as modest. Five hundred is less than 125 per month. For the thousands waiting, reimbursements may still be a long way off.

The full report is available online at: www1.nyc.gov/ assets/home/downloads/pdf/reports/2014/sandy_ 041714.pdf

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