For Many Homeowners Sandy Recovery Has Yet To Begin, But To The Build It Back Program It's All But Complete, And That's Wrong.

Director of SBP-Friends of Rockaway reacts to Build it Back directives as NYC's troubled Sandy recovery program prepares to shutter before completing the job

The Housing Recovery Office is moving aggressively toward Mayor Bill de Blasio's goal of program completion by the end of 2016. The following deadlines, forced upon Sandy victims who have been waiting nearly four years for assistance, will be strictly enforced.

To me, SBP-Friends of Rockaway and the clients we work for, this is deeply troubling. NYC homeowners, affected by Sandy and registered with Build it Back, are once again about to be surprised by new deadlines and policies.

Moving aggressively towards completion is, of course, the right approach. While it sounds good to push towards program completion, does program completion translate into mission completion? Is completing the mission defined as sunsetting the program in 2016 or helping eligible residents who still need assistance? Is it defined by an arbitrary number of construction starts? Or by the families still waiting for assistance? Can you say that when the program closes late this year, that ALL our neighbors will have received the services they need?

Even now, after ample opportunity to reflect on mistakes made, Build it Back continues to whisper when the environment and circumstances call for a roar. Build it Back should be a leader, an entity of reassurance to both New Yorkers and the country alike for how city-run disaster recovery can succeed. Instead, it is an embarrassment.

How were these deadlines published? Did all homeowners who will be affected receive a call, a letter or an email? Whatever communication method was used -- I know it was not sufficient. Homeowners are unaware that they will be tagged as "withdrawn" simply for not understanding the timeline prescribed to them.

Missed Appointments
"Homeowners must schedule or reschedule Build it Back appointments within 14 days of the original appointment date. The Program cannot accommodate later appointment dates."

How about homeowners and families who could not accommodate a four-year delay in their recovery? With the high administrative costs of the program, how is it appropriate to require the homeowner to solve this issue? Can we confidently say all homeowners receive notice of an appointment? What role will BiB play in initiating a time for a second appointment? It sounds like the city feels that one more attempt justifies turning our back on our neighbors. This is unnecessary and unacceptable.

What of your inspectors, who have shown up late? Or not shown up at all? What about James, who when dispatched to meet us for a mid-point inspection on a CYOC job, went to the wrong address and delayed the meeting by one hour. Where is our power to hold accountable those forces of a sloppy program that are outside a homeowner's control?

Reasonable Accommodation Requests
"If you or a member of your household is disabled and require a reasonable accommodation as part of the construction design, you must submit a Reasonable Accommodation Request by July 31, 2016. Please note, the Program cannot accept requests from applicants who have reviewed their constructions designs."

Think of those who would request reasonable accommodations -- the disabled, elderly, wounded Veterans or first responders.

There is a grave difference between "the program cannot" vs "the program will not". Build it Back creates its own timelines and deadlines. Build it Back is scheduling its own sunset, it's own timelines, and to many residents, it appears that Build it Back can do anything it would like -- miss appointments, lose paperwork. The only reason it "can't" is because it "won't".

Design Approval
"When you are presented with the design of your home, you will have 14 days to approve the design, pay any remaining transfer amount, and sign your grant agreement. Homeowners that do not complete these items within 14 days will be withdrawn from the program. Homeowners may request any eligible design changes at the design consultation. These will be incorporated within the 14-day period. No changes will be made to designs for any ineligible items or requests above Minimum Program Standards."

What will change to ensure eligible design changes will occur within 14 days? In my experience, a simple swap from environment encapsulation to removal can take as long as a month.

A take it or leave it approach might have been reasonable four years out from Sandy if the program had offered ample opportunities prior to issuing a 14-day timeline. But this program has NOT prioritized the difficult cases. Instead it has gone for the low-hanging fruit -- the jobs that require only smoke detectors and a raised electric panel -- to pad numbers and misrepresent recovery.

I saw this in New Orleans. I saw this in Joplin. I didn't expect to see it in New York City.

Landlord/Tenant Agreements
If you are a landlord and have tenants that will be displaced due to Build it Back construction, you must sign a Temporary Relocation Agreement by July 31, 2016.

Your tenant must sign this form by the time you sign your Grant Agreement. We cannot execute the Grant Agreement and proceed with construction until you and your tenant(s) sign the Temporary Relocation Agreement.

How can you expect, in this rental market, for tenants to prepare for relocation? How can you expect a landlord to pass down the ambiguous timeline that is BiB services to their tenants? Will you also be offering a clear, predictable timeline for reconstruction and necessary relocation time? Or is this just another way to scale down your wait list?

Reduction of Transfer Amount
The Program can no longer accept receipts to lower your Transfer Amount or allow payment plans.

This is, perhaps, the biggest flaw.

Since beginning my work with SBP in NYC, I have met with Amy Peterson, David Louis, and members of their team on multiple occasions with a simple request -- let us help you.

Deduct the transfer amount from the total award. Ms. Smith has a TA of $5,000 to access $25,000 in subsidy? Award her $20,000 and have her work with an NGO to fill the gap with volunteer labor, bulk pricing and our staff licensed contractors.

Despite SBP being named one of only two nonprofit organizations recognized in the city's Choose your Contractor initiative, these requests have fallen on deaf ears for 3-plus years now.

Move out Dates
Homeowners must vacate their homes and remove the contents by the required move out date. If you do not move out by the required date, you will have 14 additional days to vacate the property before you are found in default of the Program's Grant Agreement.

How can you expect homeowners to move out without providing any predictability on a construction timeline?

Program Appeals
Requests for Review of Program decisions must be received by Build it Back within 14 days. The Program cannot process late Requests.

Where are the new expectations passed down to BiB program directors? How will BiB amend its processes?

Every person who is not rightfully served through BiB falls on the shoulders of NGO's like Rebuilding Together, Habitat for Humanity, SBP and the like. It falls on the shoulders of donors, giving $25 or $50 at a time so that we can purchase drywall and insulation. Most significantly, though, it falls on the backs of homeowners who didn't ask for this.

We are defined by what we allow. What will you allow Build it Back to do? And, who are we to blame for the respiratory infections, blight and decay that will spread throughout our city in 2017?

What will Build it Back do to support organizations who will clean up this mess in the years to come? End the program if you must, but please don't stop supporting the organizations who are rebuilding these communities. SBP stands ready to assist the city with our most vulnerable friends and neighbors. Unfortunately, Build it Back preferred to turn its back on New Yorkers rather than accept help to properly finish the job.

Now that Build it Back is declaring victory, what is the city's plan to help those who know better?

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About SBP
SBP's mission is to shrink time between disaster and recovery. Since its founding in 2006 in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, SBP has rebuilt homes for more than 1,060 families with the help of 125,000 volunteers in New Orleans; Joplin, MO; Staten Island, NY; Rockaway, NY; Monmouth and Ocean Counties, NJ; San Marcos, TX and Columbia, SC.

SBP's model is enhanced by AmeriCorps, which provides 140 members annually to manage worksites and clients, and train the organization's volunteers nationally.

Through its Disaster Resilience and Recovery Lab (DRRL), SBP works to share lessons learned, prevent common barriers to recovery and help communities utilize SBP's standardized, repeatable and proven-effective model.

SBP shrinks time between disaster and recovery via five interventions:

1) Build innovatively, driving efficiency
2) Share SBP's proven effective model with other organizations to increase efficacy across the disaster rebuilding sector
3) Train home and business owners in resilience and risk mitigation prior to disaster
4) Advise local and state government officials so they can deploy federal dollars sooner, and in a way that empowers an efficient recovery
5) Advocate so that what is measured is what matters - a complete recovery

To learn more, visit www.SBPUSA.org and like/follow on Facebook & Twitter @SBPUSA