Sandy Housing Recovery Program Makes Promises It Finds Hard to Deliver

Confusion and complaints persist over Build It Back
By Genevieve Belmaker, Epoch Times
February 24, 2014 Updated: February 24, 2014

UPDATE: City Council Member Mark Treyger, chair of a newly formed committee on recovery and resiliency, confirmed on Monday there will be a hearing on Build It Back in March. Also on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said his Sandy recovery plan would be available “in coming weeks.”

NEW YORK—The city’s flailing Superstorm Sandy housing recovery program has gone through almost $10 million in federal disaster aid, but not one home has been rebuilt to show for it. Eight months after its launch, Build It Back is still little more than a behemoth of administration, paperwork, and federal rules that both the city and program applicants find extraordinarily difficult to navigate.

Though it was launched in June 2013, the most significant progress seems to have come in 2014—after months of work to retool the program under Build It Back Director Kathryn Mallon. Mallon temporarily took over from Brad Gair in October to, in her words, “get the program up and running.” Mallon, who is also deputy commissioner for the Department of Environmental Protection, resigned as director last week. Her last day will be Feb. 28.

“We did the foundational work—and I think you’re seeing the fruits of it,” said Mallon, referring to the community meetings that are now being held in Sandy-struck communities to assist and answer applicants’ questions, as well as the number of people finally being offered assistance.

Mallon was charged by the Bloomberg administration to shut the program down for a period, and find a better way to make the organizational structure work (although they were still processing applications). She said her resignation had been previously planned.

Though there’s no word yet on who Mayor Bill de Blasio will appoint to replace her, Mallon’s concern remains not how the program is being handled, but how the federal rules it must abide by can be navigated.

“The city is getting handed this HUD program,” said Mallon on Thursday. “It’s convoluted and archaic and you’ve got to be conservative because if you don’t, they take the money away from you.”

Program Navigation

Though $540 million has been set aside so far for the program’s rental assistance, repair work, rebuilding, and rehabilitation of storm-ravaged homes, precious few of the almost 21,000 eligible applicants (thousands more applied who were not eligible) have gotten any help. They must file copious amounts of paperwork, including income verification and proof of other disaster recovery assistance, and then have an intake meeting. Some then need a damage assessment of their property. It is only after all of this that their applications can be verified as complete, and an offer for help can be made.

Another issue is that the federal government requires that lower-income residents get help first. The Priority 1 group makes up about half of the applicants.

“It seemed like it would be fairly easy,” said Cristal Farrington, a 41-year-old resident of Coney Island who works in sales and lives in a co-op building that was devastated by Sandy.

Farrington, a Priority 2 applicant, saw advertisements on bus stops and heard radio ads before going online to sign up around the end of August.

Priorities 2 and 3 applicants are being moved through the process, but funding is not fully in place for them yet.

“It’s so complicated—I couldn’t get anybody on the phone,” Farrington said of trying to follow up after her initial application. When she did speak with a recovery specialist, she was told that her application was being “funneled through Catholic Charities,” a nonprofit. “They seem very clueless. There’s no accountability,” she said of Build It Back.

Mallon admits that customer service representatives from the consultancy firms running Build It Back are “one weak link” in the process.

Contractors

Build It Back customer service representatives are recruited and employed by a consortium of contractors run under Philadelphia-based Public Financial Management, or The PFM Group. PFM’s $50.22 million contract with the city was signed on July 3, 2013, to oversee coordination and implementation of Build It Back. According to the New York City Comptroller’s Office, PFM has already spent $9.2 million, largely on program administration.

Working under PFM is the San Francisco-based URS Corporation, which is in charge of customer operations and service. New Jersey-based Solix works on eligibility review and The Center for New York City Neighborhoods is responsible for housing counseling and legal services referrals. New York City-based multinational Cushman and Wakefield handles the facilities.

Build It Back is intended to complement the help homeowners have already received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), insurance claims, and other sources.

As of Feb. 17, only 13,826 intake meetings have been completed by URS. That means that an average of less than one intake meeting a day has been done by case managers at Build It Back centers in Far Rockaway, Breezy Point, Coney Island, Mill Basin, and Staten Island.

The above contractors were invited to comment by Epoch Times on complaints about Build It Back, and all either declined or did not respond.

Applicant Delays

Applicants getting offers of help are presenting problems of their own for the program’s administrators. Those in the Priority 1 group have been receiving offers, however, Mallon said that most applicants do not accept what they are offered.

According to Mallon, only about 10 percent of the more than 2,100 households offered help since January have accepted. The most common reasons for applicant refusals are: they have an open permit or repairs are already in progress (which the federal government prohibits as a condition of offering help), they disagree with the damage assessment or contest what’s offered, or they haven’t completed a key piece of paperwork detailing other aid already received, called an F13.

“We didn’t anticipate homeowners having this many issues,” said Mallon. “Not many people agree with us—about two-thirds of them disagree with us.”

Though the numbers change frequently, at last count there were just 12 applicants who have accepted rebuilding awards.

“We’re in this do loop of having meetings with award calculation and decision,” she said, and added that there are still thousands of applicants the program is trying to establish contact with.

The catch with the loop that Mallon mentions, and the thousands of unresponsive or unreachable applicants, is that they could hold up others down the line.

City Hall Concerns

It’s not just homeowners who are getting antsy about help. Many city council members with constituents in Sandy-impacted districts are turning their focus to what constituents say are unanswered housing needs.

Mark Treyger, who represents Coney Island and is chair of a newly formed committee on recovery and resiliency, has been raising the issue since the day he took his oath of office in January of this year.

“This type of work requires unprecedented cooperation between the federal, state, and local governments,” said Treyger, reasoning over the program’s pace at a Feb. 18 Build It Back community meeting on Coney Island.

One on one, he’s more blunt.

“What is the holdup?” asked Treyger at his City Hall office earlier this month.

The recent change in administration caused some upsets for the program, but after mentioning it in his State of the City, de Blasio promised again on Thursday to review Sandy recovery efforts by spring.

“We are looking at the entire dynamic of Sandy recovery,” said de Blasio at a press conference in Queens in response to an Epoch Times reporter’s question on Build It Back.

“I’m not, obviously, comfortable with the fact that so many people have not been able to get back into their homes,” de Blasio said. He added that “complex federal rules” are part of the hold up, “but we want to find every way we can to do better.”

At every level, there are more questions than answers about the current state of Build It Back. In an email in response to an Epoch Times inquiry, a representative for the U.S. Government Accountability Office said though they have “ongoing work on Sandy recovery,” they don’t have any figures on New York City specifically.

Acknowledging that people are looking for answers so that they can move on with their lives, Mallon said, “All I can do is beg people for their patience and forgiveness.”

 

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Build It Back Timeline

Oct. 29, 2012 — Superstorm Sandy hits New York City

Nov. 5, 2012 — Brad Gair appointed head of city’s housing recovery 

June 3, 2013 — Mayor Michael Bloomberg announces launch of Build It Back

July 3, 2013 — The PFM Group of Philadelphia signs a $50.22 million contract to manage Build It Back

October 2013 — Kathryn Mallon becomes new director of Build It Back

Oct. 29, 2013 — One-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy

Oct. 31, 2013 — Program registration for Build It Back closes

Feb. 10, 2014 — Mayor Bill de Blasio promises comprehensive review and updated Sandy recovery plan in first State of the City speech

Feb. 14, 2014 — Kathryn Mallon resigns as Build It Back director

Feb. 20, 2014 — Zero homes rebuilt through Build It Back