NEW YORK (AP) — A year and a half after Superstorm Sandy decimated New York City's coastline, a city-run program that was supposed to rebuild wrecked homes has only begun construction on three houses, and officials say they will need another $1 billion from the federal government in order to help every homeowner in need.
Homeowners who lost everything in the storm are furious with the lack of progress made by the Build-It-Back program, which was created by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to primarily help New Yorkers repair, rebuild and elevate homes, though some funding was also designated to aid renters and owners of multi-family properties.
The city has already been granted $1.45 billion in federal funding for the program and about 20,000 people have applied for rebuilding and repair assistance. But as of last week, checks had been mailed to just three homeowners — totaling $100,000 — to reimburse them for repair work. And construction has begun on only three homes, none of which have been completely rebuilt.
Emotions ran high at a city council hearing Monday, where Amy Peterson, Mayor Bill de Blasio's newly appointed director of housing recovery, was assailed with withering criticism from politicians and homeowners in her first day on the job. Much of the blame for inaction was laid squarely on the Bloomberg administration.
"We have been frustrated and heartbroken at every step of this process," said Joseph Palmer Doyle, who applied to Build-It-Back and has yet to receive a dime for repair work to his home in the Rockaways. "We are financially ruined."
Peterson acknowledged that it has taken the city an "unacceptable length of time" to help those in need and said de Blasio's administration has moved quickly to cut through the red tape since January to get things moving.
Checks amounting to an additional $800,000 are about to be mailed out to homeowners, and about 70 people are negotiating with contractors to have their construction work mapped out, Peterson said.
Mayoral officials said more than 3,000 "offer meetings" — during which residents are presented with their financial offers from the city — have been held since Jan. 1, compared to just 500 prior to that. The city has completed nearly 10,000 damage assessments, with 7,000 of those completed under de Blasio's watch.
The new administration has also moved senior staff members to Build-It-Back centers and pushed up home design consultations earlier in the application process to speed up the bureaucracy. But politicians said it doesn't matter who created the problem: it must be fixed immediately.
"The problem is, it's been about 10 months and Build-It-Back hasn't actually built anything back yet," said Councilman Jumaane Williams, who represents several neighborhoods in Brooklyn. "This administration may not have made the mess, but this administration has to clean it up."
Over the weekend, De Blasio allocated an additional $100 million to ensure that everyone who applied to the program with a destroyed home — meaning the cost of rebuilding is 85 percent or more than the cost of a new home — will receive assistance. But that accounts for only about 500 homes. As for the rest, the city currently does not have enough money in its coffers to assist every single person who applied to Build-It-Back and would need an additional $1 billion to do so, Peterson said.
Officials are hoping that money will come through in a final installment of a block grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"There are significant uncertainties about the city's ability to serve all applicants to the program," Peterson said.
Build-It-Back has been plagued by long wait periods between applicant meetings, lost paperwork, confusing procedures, appointments canceled at the last minute and other issues that city officials and homeowners complained of during the hearing.
Peterson said the program struggled to communicate effectively with customers during its early months and often failed to track documentation through the system. It passed off responsibility from one contactor to another and struggled to manage vendor contracts across multiple city agencies, she said.
The first offers weren't presented to applicants until November. Just 500 offers were made by the end of the year.
As of now, the estimated total value of money accepted by, but not yet paid to homeowners, is about $40 million. More than $312 million has so far been offered but not accepted.
"Early missteps, unrealistic assumptions and overly complicated processes have hindered rebuilding and made it more difficult for residents to resume normal life," Peterson said.