NEW YORK (AP) — A city home-repair program has been sprinting to meet a self-imposed deadline to signal a turnaround in Superstorm Sandy recovery, and officials say they're positioned to pass their test of rebuilding both houses and confidence.
The milestone for the Build It Back initiative — 500 construction projects started and 500 reimbursement checks sent by Labor Day — represents a fraction of the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 homes eligible for fixing or reimbursements, and concerns about the program's pace linger among some New Yorkers still dealing with damage. But Mayor Bill de Blasio has portrayed the benchmarks as jump-starting a stalled program that hadn't fixed a single house or dispatched any checks when he took office in January.
"I think it's working, and we're going to keep making it work better," he said this week.
The city readily surpassed its goal for checks. But the construction component, which sends city-paid contractors to do needed work, has been more challenging: It counted 411 construction starts as of Tuesday, the most recent figures available. Officials have said many other projects were on the verge of starting, and they said Friday they were confident they would hit 500.
Two summers after Sandy's floods, the toll is still visible at Teresa Surillo's home in the Rockaways. The retired nursing home kitchen worker and her husband did what repairs they could afford with their slim resources and $46,000 in insurance money, but half their ground-floor walls are still torn out, she said.
They applied to Build It Back early on, navigating repeated requests for more information and long stretches of silence. Momentum picked up after de Blasio rebooted the program this spring, and the Surillos now may have their home completely rebuilt above flood level, an option that requires additional reviews. They said they've waited about a month to hear when they can meet program staffers to evaluate their choices and decide.
"We just hope something can be done," Teresa Surillo said, but "I'll believe it when I see it."
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg created Build It Back in June 2013, after a program called Rapid Repairs did basic work to make homes habitable. But as of Jan. 1, no households had complete plans for the work, and the program had developed a red-tape reputation.
De Blasio announced the 500-homes goals in April. He eliminated income categories that had held up some applications because others were prioritized, assigned city Buildings Department inspectors exclusively to the initiative and made other changes that accelerated it.
After getting only a few thousand dollars in insurance payouts to fix her flooded Staten Island house, Donna Panebianco applied to Build It Back last year, but "nothing really went on until they revamped the program," she said.
"Once they did, I took off running," the bookkeeper said this past week, with work underway on her ground-floor bathroom and other problems.
While Monday's benchmark may be modest compared to the overall need, "it's a huge number compared to zero," city housing recovery chief Amy Peterson said. She notes that more than 10,300 homes have been inspected, quadruple the number last year. And more than 1,000 residents have decided on a plan and completed design consultations.
While giving the administration credit for setting a responsive, reinvigorated tone, local officials greet it with tempered optimism. "There has been a major improvement," but there also are thousands of homeowners still waiting for results, said City Councilman Mark Treyger, who leads the council's Sandy recovery committee.
Enduring frustrations with red tape and timeframes have bubbled up at some community meetings this summer; 1,000 people packed one organized by community advocacy group Faith in New York. And Republican Rep. Michael Grimm complained this week that Build It Back remains "completely broken," speaking outside a boarded-up, mold-filled Staten Island house. Officials say they and the homeowner have made strides recently to advance the project.
A mile away, Roy Garlisi welcomed a Build It Back contractor this past week to take measurements for repairs to his basement, with a hitch: The program's rules won't allow for fixing the kitchen, as there's another one upstairs, though it lacks an oven. "We've been eating out of a frying pan since Sandy," said Garlisi, 81.
But he's glad for other work the program will do.
"I'm very hopeful," he said. "It's moving in the right direction now."
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.