Presidents of Queens co-ops and condos have joined elected officials in decrying what they called a discriminatory loophole in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s post-Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.
What they call a bit of misinterpretation by FEMA has left co-ops and condos looking for Sandy help at the Small Business Association, even though they are residential entities.
The guidelines behind who does and doesn’t get FEMA aid are dictated by the Stafford Act, which does not contain specific provisions for co-ops and condos. As a result, FEMA considers them commercial entities, leaving them ineligible for grants aimed at helping homeowners get back on their feet.
“It’s one thing to be devastated by a hurricane; it’s another to be devastated by a loophole,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-L.I.), whose district includes part of Northeast Queens since new borders were instituted this year. He added the problem could be solved quickly if FEMA changed its definition of co-ops and condos.
“The word ‘co-op’ is not in the Stafford Act,” Israel said. “There’s no statute against giving co-ops and condos grants. We do not need an act of Congress to fix this.”
The congressman sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, asking they redefine co-ops and condos as residential dwellings.
But the help FEMA can offer is limited. The agency’s relief programs are not geared towards covering the cost of repairs.
“The only grants we give to homeowners are for temporary housing needs and minimal repairs to make the home safe and livable,” said FEMA spokesman Ed Conley, adding there is a $31,900 limit for individuals.
“The purpose of a FEMA disaster housing grant is to help a family get back on their feet and have a safe place to live temporarily. It is emergency assistance for housing.”
He pointed to SBA’s disaster loans, the city’s Rapid Repairs and other programs as a lifeline for co-ops and condos.
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), Assemblyman Ed Braunstein (D-Bayside) and Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) joined Israel at a press conference in Glen Oaks Village, which suffered extensive damage from Sandy. The co-op faces about $250,000 in expenses and counting after the hurricane tore shingles off roofs and knocked over trees.
“This arbitrary and erroneous classification of co-ops and condos means they are being completely ignored,” said Glen Oaks Village President Bob Friedrich.
At the heart of the issue may be nomenclature. Co-ops and condos, though prevalent throughout the city, are uncommon across the country. To outsiders, they may seem like a band of profitable housing units.
“It’s really them not knowing what we are,” said Weprin, who founded the council’s Co-op and Condo Caucus. “It’s not just the rich living here. It’s the middle class.”
Should no monetary help arrive, co-ops and condos would have to foot thousands (or over $1 million in the case of Cryder Point in Beechhurst) in repair bills on their own. The additional costs will inevitably be passed down to shareholders in the form of increased maintenance charges or skyrocketing assessments.
The repair bills have been inflated by an irony at the state level. The Industrial Development Agency has provided sales tax exemptions for hurricane-related work done for commercial entities. But it considers co-ops and condos residential dwellings.
“Co-ops are being thwarted every step of the way,” Friedrich said.