NEW YORK (AP) — Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a sweeping report Thursday that examined New York City's recovery progress from Superstorm Sandy and promised to reform a much-maligned program that was supposed to rebuild wrecked homes.
Speaking to about 50 homeowners, officials and community leaders in a storm-battered Staten Island neighborhood, the mayor said the city is aiming to start rebuilding an ambitious 500 homes through its federally funded Build-It-Back program by the end of the summer. Only nine homes are currently under construction, none of which have been fully rebuilt.
"Let's be blunt: It has been overly complex and confusing for homeowners over the last year and a half," de Blasio said.
The crowd cheered when de Blasio said he wants to build a "high-quality local workforce" through a new initiative that will connect low-income New Yorkers with construction jobs on recovery projects.
Joe Herrnkind, 51, whose home was destroyed by the October 2012 storm, wasn't convinced by the mayor's vows. Several other Staten Island residents left the news conference in disgust, he said.
"It's just one bad road after another with Build-It-Back," he said. "They ask you for information which they lose on a weekly basis, to cut down another forest of trees, to make you come in and sign more documents and bring in more documents. It's frustrating because you've been going through this for 18 months with them."
Widely considered a failure, Build-It-Back 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.
To speed up the recovery process for homeowners, the city will eliminate income categories that had given priority to low-income residents and prevented the remaining applications from being processed, allowing hundreds of additional homeowners to get help, the mayor said. Now, income level will not disqualify any applicant from being able to rebuild, get reimbursement money or become eligible for a buyout through the program.
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 this week, checks had been mailed to just 30 homeowners to reimburse them for repair work already completed. The mayor said the goal is to mail reimbursement checks to 500 homeowners by the summer's end.
"Despite all the challenges, we will build back," de Blasio said. "We will build back stronger."
Inspectors from the Department of Buildings will be assigned exclusively to Build-It-Back to streamline the pre-construction process. Program directors will be appointed in each borough to coordinate across city agencies and avoid confusion. And a new web portal will allow applicants to track their recovery status.
The city plans to offer relief from city water bills for vacant, damaged homes and partner with a coalition of legislators to provide property tax relief for about 1,500 homeowners lost their property tax cap after Sandy hit.
To help immigrants who are living here illegally and were displaced from their homes, the American Red Cross is partnering with the city to provide rental assistance. The federal government has not said whether it will allow immigrants in the country illegally to access federal Sandy relief funds.
Associated Press writer Michael Sisak contributed to this report.