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Re-Build It Back: City announces reforms to recovery program

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The city’s beleaguered hurricane-recovery effort is getting a second wind.

Mayor DeBlasio announced reforms this week to the city-run, federally funded Build It Back program, which connects homeowners and businesses to resources for repairing destruction wrought by several major weather events to hit the city — most notably superstorm Sandy.

After complaints that the program is taking too long to pay out, the city is promising to cut 500 reimbursement checks and start 500 reconstruction projects by summer’s end. Recovery advocates say that’s a good first step, but it doesn’t go far enough.

“Committing to 500 checks isn’t going anywhere quickly enough,” said Jameson Wells, who heads the Gerritsen Beach Long-term Recovery Project.

Other reforms attempt to fix applicants’ poor user experience.

For the first time, participants will be able to submit paperwork and track applications online. In the past, residents accused the program of mismanagement, charging at a March 31 oversight hearing that caseworkers gave incomplete information and lost paperwork.

“The people taking info were not trained — nobody was on the same page,” said David Wynn, president of a homeowners association in Seagate.

The web portal will come pre-loaded with documents already submitted to the program and will provide more transparency, according to a spokeswoman for the mayor’s Office of Recovery.

Wells said the portal sounds promising, but he had concerns about privacy.

“If it works, it’s a great idea,” he said. “But talk about an identity-thief’s dream — that’s exactly what these reports are. It’s every detail of these peoples’ lives.”

The reforms will also reduce penalties for accepting relief funding outside of Build It Back.

Previously, homeowners who accepted relief money from other sources might have to repay a portion to participate in the program, but reforms would allow them to instead apply that so-called “transfer amount” to temporary housing costs during reconstruction.

Wells said the change is a boon, but doesn’t go far enough. Build It Back counts relief not used for actual reconstruction when calculating transfer amounts — effectively penalizing participants for double-dipping even though there was no duplication of benefits, he said.

Many applicants received insurance checks earmarked for reconstruction and others for replacing household goods and appliances, but Build It Back counts both against the cost of reconstruction, so some applicants may have to repay the cost of re-stocking their homes to take advantage of federal Build It Back money, Wells said.

“That is still a huge discrepancy,” he said.

There are two immediate benefits for homeowners by way of tax relief. More than 1,500 homeowners who have already rebuilt won’t see their property taxes spike, and those with vacant properties will see a water bill abatement, a city spokeswoman said.

The DeBlasio administration is also promising more interagency collaboration and community engagement through local non-profits, and will appoint a Brooklyn borough director specifically to meet those ends. Changes also bulk up the Build It Back workforce, including dedicating Department of Buildings workers to site inspections.

Program under fire

Since its inception, Build It Back has met criticism for being unwieldy for applicants and slow to pay out. The program was created under the Bloomberg administration and attracted more than 25,000 registrants during the enrollment period from June 2013 to October 2013.

It took almost a year before the city began doling out the more than $1.45 billion in federal aid to homeowners. So far, just 30 households have received reimbursement for construction already completed, and nine participants have begun program-funded construction, a report detailing the recovery shows.

In February, Councilman Mark Treyger (D–Coney Island) called for the city to re-open registration after finding out that only 876 out of thousands of Coney Islanders devastated by the storm enrolled before the application period closed last year.

A month later, residents and lawmakers sounded off about the program’s slow response during an oversight hearing in the Council chamber.

Earlier this month, newly minted housing and recovery director Amy Peterson toured hard-hit areas of Coney Island to get a feel for how Sandy-stricken residents are living.

Treyger, who escorted Peterson on the tour, said he believes the administration has a desire to fix the broken program.

“It’s crystallizing for her that these people are dealing with not only Sandy’s impact but the impact of inaction,” he said.

The mayor indicated on Thursday that the reform package may be the first in a series.

“This is an ongoing process to say the least,” DeBlasio said during a press conference unveiling the reforms.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-8303. Follow him on Twitter @MJaeger88.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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