Mayor de Blasio announced last week his proposal to fix the trouble-plagued Build it Back program, as well as his own ideas for the city’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
Strangled by red tape, Sandy victims and officials representing the hardest-hit areas have pushed the new administration since it took office Jan. 1 to overhaul the city’s flagship Sandy-response program, created by former Mayor Bloomberg last summer, and rife with problems.
Last month the mayor appointed a new team to oversee the city’s response to Hurricane Sandy and said he would reallocate $100 million in federal Housing and Urban Development community block grants toward rebuilding efforts.
Last Thursday’s announcement, which took place in Staten Island, the borough hardest hit by Sandy, came as the administration released a 33-page report outlining proposed changes to Build it Back.
“We can’t stand idly by as red tape and bureaucratic bottlenecks prevent far too many New Yorkers from getting the relief they need,” the mayor said last Thursday, adding the Build it Back program has been “overly complex and confusing for homeowners.”
As of January, not one home had seen reconstruction start under Build it Back. As of last week, that number had only risen to nine. One of the goals of the de Blasio administration is to increase that number to 500 by the end of this summer.
The mayor also hopes to cut at least 500 reimbursement checks to homeowners by the end of the summer. So far only 30 have received reimbursement money.
De Blasio also said he would assign 17 inspectors from the Department of Buildings to work with Build it Back.
Many officials and Sandy victims themselves say the mayor has moved too slowly on overhauling the city’s storm response, putting it too low on his list of priorities.
But de Blasio said his administration has been focused on Sandy recovery since its first day in office.
“Since January 1 of this year, over the last 100-plus days, Build it Back has presented nearly 4,000 homeowners with award offers,” de Blasio said Thursday. “That is an eight-fold increase over that which had been done previously. As we speak, Build it Back construction crews are at work already around affected areas.”
De Blasio’s proposals rely on an additional $1 billion in funding from Washington D.C., money that several sources say is not certain to come.
The city has already received $3.2 billion in Sandy aid from the federal government.
But state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) said more aid from the federal government may not be coming.
“What I’m hearing from the federal government is what I heard after 9/11. We’ve done enough,” he said.
Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is overseeing Sandy aid, may be ready to move between $1 and $2 billion in aid to other disasters.
Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) said he was glad to see de Blasio “take the bull by the horns” and focus on fixing the troubled Build it Back program.
“These changes are reassuring and welcome news to so many of my constituents whose lives were disrupted by Hurricane Sandy,” Ulrich said. “The day when people can finally move back into their homes or get reimbursed for damage-related repairs cannot come soon enough.”
Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park) also thanked the mayor for moving on Build it Back.
“Sandy was a devastating event for our community and every family should get the resources they need that will allow them to move on and rebuild their lives,” Goldfeder said. “We should not have to wait weeks, months or years to get an answer from Build it Back. I want to thank Mayor de Blasio for his steadfast commitment to our families of southern Queens and Rockaway and for his dedication to cut the bureaucracy and move the Build it Back process forward.”
Addabbo said admitting there is a problem with the program was progress.
“The most important step was to acknowledge that the Build it Back program was not working for most of my constituents throughout Howard Beach, Hamilton Beach, Broad Channel, Rockaway and Breezy Point and that changes were necessary,” he said.
In the meantime, City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced that his office would be forming an oversight unit aimed at keeping tabs on how federal aid was spent on recovery and resiliency programs; identifying areas where controls can be strengthened to improve performance and service delivery to protect taxpayers from fraud, waste and abuse; monitoring the budget, milestones and status of Sandy projects; and proposing policy recommendations to help the city enhance its emergency preparedness capacity.
According to the Comptroller’s Office, audit staff at the unit’s onset will take a comprehensive look at the Build it Back program to determine whether the Housing Recovery Office has set goals and timetables for the delivery of services and established procedures to reduce the backlog of applications. The unit will also monitor the speed and quality of services delivered and determine whether adequate control procedures have been implemented to detect fraud.
The audit will focus on the Single Family Program, since the majority of the funding was allocated to those recipients.
Stringer will be holding town halls across Sandy-affected areas in the city to explain the new unit, including one in Breezy Point on April 30 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Bay House, 500 Bayside Drive, and on May 20 in Arverne at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, 348 Beach 71st St. from 6 to 8 p.m.