Councilman Mark Treyger, chair of City Council’s Committee on Recovery and Resiliency, and a group of elected officials from across the city, are calling on mayor’s administration to provide deadline extensions to homeowners registered with the city’s Build It Back program.
In order to move ahead with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plan to complete the Sandy-recovery initiative by the end of 2016, the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery (HRO) set a series of strictly enforced deadlines earlier this summer to ensure that the design and construction process keeps moving forward.
Treyger criticized the restrictions as “unreasonable” in a letter to the mayor and HRO director Amy Peterson last week, urging the agency to reconsider the deadlines, which would compel homeowners to complete the design approval process for their homes — including any adjustments which must be made by Build It Back — within two weeks, or put them at risk of being dropped from the program.
“I am deeply troubled by the message that this policy shift sends: that there is an internal prioritization of meeting an ambitious completion goal over actually serving the people who have been waiting patiently for Build It Back to rebuild their homes,” wrote Treyger in the letter. “These strict deadlines give the unpleasant impression that BIB may be prioritizing, in its own words, ‘moving aggressively toward Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goal of program completion by the end of 2016’ over the well-being of New Yorkers who have been waiting for nearly four years for their homes to be rebuilt.”
In addition, the deadline for households requesting reasonable accommodation in their construction designs for residents with disabilities has already passed on July 31, 2016.
In the letter — which was signed by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, Borough President Eric Adams, Congressman Dan Donovan, Senator Diane Savino, Assembly Woman Pamela Harris, Councilman Carlos Menchaca, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, among others — Treyger called for the reasonable accommodation deadline to be removed completely. The councilman expressed that any disability which can be documented by a physician should be accommodated by the program, at any stage of the process, until the point when designs have been agreed upon.
He also criticized a policy change that requires homeowners who need to reschedule an appointment, to do so within two weeks of the original appointment. Many homeowners must arrange for time off from work, child care, and informal language assistance, while also coordinating with the schedules of Build It Back staff, according to Treyger.
“In all likelihood, these ‘strictly enforced’ deadlines will have the greatest negative impact on those who need the program the most – immigrants, low-income people, people with disabilities, and working families,” he wrote.
The post-Superstorm Sandy recovery program, which was launched during the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, was initially stalled in red tape before it started. When he took office, de Blasio vowed, with the appointment of Amy Peterson as director of recovery, to cut through the bureaucracy that was preventing Sandy recovery funds from reaching their intended recipients. The administration is credited with expanding eligibility and streamlining the application process, which has helped get the program moving again.
A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said these deadlines, some of which have already been extended several times, are necessary in order to keep the Build it Back completion process on schedule.
“Build It Back sets manageable deadlines for homeowners to ensure the city can complete the program and help these homeowners,” said Freddi Goldstein, Deputy Press Secretary for the mayor’s office. “These include set time periods to approve designs, relocate before construction, and submit required documentation. Many of these deadlines have been communicated to homeowners for a period of time… At all points in the process, the Build It Back program provides resources to help homeowners, including legal and financial counseling. The Build It Back program works closely with elected officials and advocates to assist homeowners, and will continue work to address homeowners with exceptional issues, including financial hardship or disability, related to program compliance and deadlines on a case by case basis.”
Other changes to Build It Back’s policy include new, shorter deadlines for homeowners to read and sign off on Contract Labor Agreements, even though many of the impacted homeowners require translation and legal assistance to fully understand the documents, according to Treyger.
The city maintains that these deadlines are effective and necessary. When the HRO initially set a 14-day deadline for design approvals on June 1, more than 90 percent of homeowners, close to 350, have complied with the deadline — with 80 percent signing their designs and grant agreements at their initial meetings.
However, in his letter, Treyger cites the example of one constituent who, due to a Department of Buildings (DOB) error, is now at risk of being withdrawn from the program.
“The constituent has complied with all of the deadlines thus far; unfortunately, the DOB has been intransigent,” Treyger wrote. “Without outside advocacy, as a result of conflicting city government agency priorities, this woman would have been denied the help she deserves. These are people who have been living in damaged homes, sometimes without necessary utilities, for years. We have an obligation to help them rebuild.”
Homeowners who are currently at risk of being booted from the program should visit a Build It Back center, which have been set up to provide legal and financial assistance. Applicants have the right to file a Request for Review to claim a hardship if they are withdrawn for missing a deadline, and program directors work to identify exceptional cases and work with applicants prior to deadlines to resolve issues by providing grace periods and other accommodations.
Finally, applicants may file a legal appeal if they believe the decision is not supported by the law. Counselors are available at Build it Back centers to assist applicants in filing an appeal.