By Laura Kusisto
Oct. 9, 2014 9:21 p.m. ET
It could take several more years to rebuild homes and reimburse about 14,000 homeowners hit by superstorm Sandy almost two years ago, according to a report issued Thursday by the city Department of Investigation.
The report says “a confusing, multilayered application process, among other issues, have caused bottlenecks that delayed the application process and critical assistance from reaching homeowners.” About 90% of homeowners seeking help from the city’s Build It Back program have yet to receive assistance.
The report lends weight to complaints by residents and politicians that have shadowed the program for months. Among them: lost paperwork; an application process with unneeded extra steps; and environmental reviews that slowed the distribution of aid.
“This is pretty much a summary of all of the emotional, heart-wrenching powerful testimony that we’ve heard on the council,” said City Councilman Mark Treyger, who represents a swath of southern Brooklyn including Coney Island and heads the committee on recovery and resiliency.
About 6,000 homeowners who initially applied subsequently have withdrawn from the program or become unresponsive, despite efforts by city officials to contact them. The report finds that some gave up seeking assistance out of frustration with the slow pace of assistance.
The report focuses on problems from the early days of the program and says Mayor Bill de Blasio ’s administration has addressed a number of them in recent months.
The administration has taken steps such as eliminating the three-tier priority system that left many homeowners in limbo and announcing plans to hire potentially dozens of additional contractors.
“Many of the initial concerns outlined in the [Department of Investigation] report are ones the de Blasio administration shared when we came into office, and worked to immediately fix as part of the Build It Back overhaul earlier this year,” a Build It Back spokeswoman said.
“We got $640 million out the door within 120 days to help 20,000 families get back into their homes and begin to recover their lives,” said a spokesman for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “No city moved that much money into construction or that many families back into their homes so quickly.”
The report acknowledges that some difficulties with the rebuilding process were caused by requirements issued by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Among other things, the agency requires that each home that receives rebuilding assistance undergo an environmental review.
But the report says the city also created a process that required residents to participate in multiple meetings before any repair work could be done. It cites the example of a homeowner who attended four meetings and received four separate phone calls regarding missed documentation that the homeowner believed had already been submitted. The homeowner called Build It Back 15 times before receiving any benefits.
Some said they had seen significant improvements under the new administration, which the report’s headline criticisms tend to obscure.
“To me it felt like the framing was unfair with an aim of undercutting the good work that the de Blasio administration has done,” said Susannah Dyen, coordinator for the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, a coalition of community groups. “I think the folks working in Build It Back would say this too, that there is still a lot of work to get done, but my understanding from on the ground is that the application process is going faster, is going smoother.”
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