Rep. Israel joins boro leaders to fight for federal grant money in wake of Sandy

Photo by Phil Corso
By Phil Corso

Co-op owners in northeast Queens said they felt discriminated against when it came to seeking federal aid in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

In Glen Oaks Village, more than half of the 134 buildings suffered roof damage to rack up a bill of about $25,000, according to co-op President Bob Friedrich. But after approaching the Federal Emergency Management Agency for grant money, Friedrich said a misinterpretation of fine print left his neighborhood ineligible for aid.

He said FEMA classified Glen Oaks Village as a business association, which qualifies for loans but not federal grant money, and in turn discriminates against the 3,000 families who inhabit the neighborhood.

“This is really an issue of fairness and equity,” Friedrich said. “Our residents are paying for FEMA like everybody else. Yet we are not eligible for the aid.”

Elected officials who represent the region stood beside northeast Queens co-op and condo owners at a Tuesday press conference at Glen Oaks Village to demand revisions on how FEMA classifies homeowners.

U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Hauppauge) said co-ops owners deserved the same assistance as private homeowners — especially in the wake of a storm as devastating as Sandy.

“It seems clear that FEMA’s policy is the result of not understanding the role of co-ops in our community,” said Israel, who joined the ranks of Queens officials after the district he had represented was redrawn. “But that bureaucratic error in Washington is having real consequences for co-op owners here in New York.”

Joining Israel were elected officials from all levels of government, including state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) and state Assemblyman Ed Braunstein (D-Bayside).

According to FEMA spokesman Ed Conley, the agency doles out grant money to individual residents living in co-ops depending mostly on agreements between homeowners and the community associations that oversee them.

“In any county with a major disaster declaration, individual homeowners or renters with damages to their individual units from Superstorm Sandy are eligible to apply for FEMA assistance, and we urge them to do so,” he said. “This includes residents living in co-ops. However, FEMA’s Individual Assistance program is authorized to grant assistance funds only to individuals or households, not business associations such as co-op boards.”

In addition, Conley said grant money only goes toward emergency repairs to make homes livable, which does not include roof shingle damage similar to that reported in Glen Oaks.

“We are looking at what we need to do to get you in a livable housing situation,” Conley said. “Getting people into a livable space would mean repairs to the kitchen, a bathroom or a bedroom — not to replace everything that was lost or destroyed.”

Meanwhile, any property owned by the co-op association, such as a roof classified as common property, must go through to the United States Small Business Association to receive repair loans, according to SBA Public Affairs Specialist Michael Peacock.

Bay Terrace Community Alliance President Warren Schreiber estimated there were anywhere from between $50,000 and $100,000 in damages to his co-op community and said the financial burden falls onto the residents without federal assistance.

“Many middle-class shareholders who are already experiencing financial difficulties will not be able to absorb the additional charges,” he said. “It’s hoped that FEMA will review and correct existing policy.”

Israel said he sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FEMA Director Craig Fugate asking them to amend their policy to allow co-ops to apply for much-needed grants.

“The wind did not discriminate. The water did not discriminate. The storm did not discriminate,” Israel said. “FEMA discriminates.”

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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