By Christina Santucci
Although few exterior signs are left of Hurricane Sandy’s wrath in Queens’ coastal communities more than a year and a half later, city officials recently made major policy and leadership changes to help quicken remaining recovery efforts with a focus on getting displaced residents back into their homes.
Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the appointment of three leaders to his Sandy recovery team and unveiled an overhaul of the federally funded Build it Back program. As of the end of 2013, no checks to single-family property owners had been sent out. Nor had construction begun on their homes.
“We have to serve people in need right now,” de Blasio said during a news conference in April. “Over the last 3 1/2 months my administration has been working day and night to hack through the red tape – and there’s been a lot of red tape to hack through. And our singular goal has been to get the recovery money where it belongs – into the hands of needy homeowners and community residents.”
By June 2, the mayor’s office said that 20,176 damage assessments had been completed citywide – with 4,448 of those in Queens – as compared to 2,566 completed by Dec. 31, 2013. And 4,671 option review meetings with single-family property owners had also been held since the end of the year.
More than 650 Queens property owners had selected a plan to move forward with rebuilding their homes, and the design process had been scheduled for 103 homeowners in the borough by June 2, according to the mayor’s office.
Over 200 checks totaling $3.1 million were sent out to homeowners and construction had begun on 20 houses in Queens – nearly 50 citywide – through the Build it Back program by June 2. So far, two Queens single-family homes have been rebuilt through Build it Back.
The mayor promised that 500 reimbursement checks would be sent and construction on 500 properties would begin by the end of the summer.
State Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Beach), a resident who was displaced with his family for two months, estimated that hundreds if not 1,000 Queens families are still not back in their homes after Sandy. The assemblyman said that since taking over, de Blasio had assured Rockaway constituents that they had not been forgotten.
“I’m not ready to wave the mission accomplished banner just yet, but we are definitely seeing progress,” Goldefeder said of changes to the Build it Back program.
As part of the overhaul, the mayor’s office has beefed up Build it Back staff, is in the process of hiring a Build it Back director for Queens, has created a site where Sandy victims can manage all of their correspondence with the city and sent senior staff to manage the agency’s centers, which include two Queens locations in Far Rockaway and Breezy Point.
Water bills for displaced residents are being refunded, city Department of Building permit fees are being waived and the mayor partnered with the governor to champion a plan to prevent property tax increases for homeowners who made costly repairs to their superstorm-damaged houses. The property tax bill was signed into law by the governor May 29. In addition, the city has been planning to give Sandy victims employment through the recovery programs. Many of these jobs would be reconstructing damaged homes.
For some southern Queens residents, the situation has become quite dire, Broad Channel Civic Association President Dan Mundy Jr. said.
“There are people out there who are close to foreclosure on their homes,” he said.
Many properties had flood damage that could be repaired over time, but some homes were knocked over, moved off their foundations or were damaged to the point where they needed to be rebuilt, Mundy explained.
“For those people, we have seen no building up to date and that is something we are really pushing hard on,” he said.
Mundy did not believe any Build it Back construction or home elevations covered by the program had begun by June 2 in Broad Channel, a 17-block long island connecting Howard Beach with the Rockaways, but thought work on one house on Cross Bay Boulevard would begin shortly.
“We’re expecting to see foundation work any day,” he said. “It would be a very encouraging thing for other people in town.”
Mundy also took heart in the responsiveness of the program’s new head, Amy Peterson, who attended the civic’s May 22 meeting, and several recent policy changes to lessen the burden on homeowners, some of which stemmed from a task force convened by the Queens borough president’s office.
The group, which met for the first time April 28 and includes agencies like DEC, FEMA and Build it Back as well as elected officials like Goldfeder and Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), was slated to convene again in early June.
“We are in the room. We are able to yell about some of the problems we have,” Mundy said.
One collaboration that resulted from the task force is the removal of red tape for those trying to rebuild in Broad Channel, Mundy said.
He pointed out that because much of Broad Channel falls within designated wetlands, a special permit is required from the Department of Environmental Conservation for construction. And if there were a question about whether a property was included in the wetlands, it would require a DEC review. To streamline the process for the neighborhood’s residents, a general permit is being issued by the agency for the city’s Build it Back constructions, and Broad Channel and Breezy Point houses in the program are eligible for the permit, the DEC said. Mundy also noted the change in four or five Broad Channel properties’ priority level for rebuilding after the city agreed to consider reports filed by structural engineers, boosting the homes up to Level 1, the most pressing classification, after the houses had been designated as Level 3 by Build it Back assessors.
“I’m somewhat optimistic that we might be turning the bend on this thing – that the checks will start flowing out and we can really make this program work for people, but we are not there yet,” Mundy said. “The next two to three months are really critical.”
Reach managing editor Christina Santucci by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org by phone at 718-260-4589.