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Some Sandy-hit homeowners don’t want to “Build It Back”

The initial deadline to register for New York City’s Sandy aid program is September 30. But what about those who don’t want to “Build it Back”?

Mayor Bloomberg didn’t announce the Build it Back program until June 3, more than seven months after Sandy struck the East Coast. Build it Back offers eligible homeowners funding for repairs or rebuilding, as well as the option to sell property to the city or the state through an acquisition/buyout. The city has spent the summer promoting the program and encouraging affected residents to register. This has proved difficult, however; while an estimated 70% of eligible New York City residents had registered by early last month[1], registration rates were significantly lower (below 40%) in three heavily affected zip codes on Staten Island.[2] While these rates can be attributed to cynicism, confusion, or a simple lack of awareness, to understand reactions to the city’s program on Staten Island it is helpful to consider the experience of residents who have decided they don’t want to rebuild their homes.

Cover Photo, NYC Build it Back Facebook page

Cover photo, NYC Build it Back Facebook page

Since Sandy, the dominant narrative has been that people will want to rebuild their homes regardless of future risk.[3] On Staten Island, however, many residents tell a different story. In the neighborhood of Oakwood Beach, for instance, a group of nearly two hundred homeowners met shortly after Sandy and collectively decided they wanted to move, rather than rebuild. Together, they successfully lobbied for a government buyout of the neighborhood. Governor Cuomo declared their homes part of an “enhanced area” that the state will convert to a public park or wetlands to protect from future flooding and storm surge. Soon after Governor Cuomo’s January announcement of his intention to buy out damaged houses, hundreds of other homeowners along the South and East Shores of Staten Island formed groups to press for buyouts in their own areas.

State officials spent the spring explaining the buyout program at community meetings across Staten Island. I recently interviewed one senior state official who spoke at many of these meetings. “The city didn’t have a plan at that time…so the state was the only gig,” he told me. It quickly became clear, however, that the city wanted to provide an alternative to the state buyouts. “The city is vehement about wanting to redevelop the waterfront,” the official explained, but state buyouts prohibit building on purchased land. The city’s Build it Back program, in contrast, offers residents an “acquisition for redevelopment” rather than a buyout. While the state-led buyout will pay homeowners the pre-storm value of their property, the city-led acquisition will pay the post-storm value, although the city says it intends to make up the difference through some form of relocation assistance.

The state official expressed frustration about the city and state working at “cross-purposes” in their recovery and resilience plans, noting,

“Everybody is going to be redeveloped from the city perspective and the state [is] saying, well, there are some areas that Mother Nature wants back. And she’ll take them, one way or the other.”

Faced with an unanticipated number of demands from Staten Island residents wanting to move, the city argued that its plan should take priority over the state’s plan because Staten Island fell within city jurisdiction. As the official explained,

“The feds approved the city taking over all buyout process in the city of New York with the exception of the enhanced areas. And there’s only one enhanced area [– in Oakwood Beach]. The senator’s hope is that there will be more than one. The governor can designate them and then we think they’re going to revisit that in September once the New York City Build it Back Program has catalogued everybody that wants a buyout.”

For the hundreds of residents who already completed applications for the state program, however, its preemption by Build it Back requires them to start the process over again. As one Occupy Sandy volunteer related to me,

“We started signing people up for the state program, cause that’s what they said, and they were like ‘everybody will just get rolled over to the city, just sign them up, just sign them up’…So we signed up probably 300 people. And then the city’s program – the Build it Back program – rolled out, and they’re like ‘we’re not going to transfer any of those.’ And it was a real struggle to get people to sign up. People are really tired of signing up.”

People are also worried that even if they take the time to register for Build it Back, they will ultimately not be eligible to receive aid. Unlike the state registration process, the volunteer explained,

The city’s program asks for your income. And people were just like, ‘well, I’m not gonna qualify [because they thought their income would be too high]’…People are really nervous that there’s some line. They don’t know what it is, but [they think] they’re going to be hurt…and they feel very – I mean, they’re suspicious of the whole process. And that just adds one layer of suspicion. And I think that they’re sort of right. They have heard that…there’s some algorithm, [but] nobody knows what it is.”

At a recent meeting in Midland Beach, three Staten Island residents expressed their concerns about Build it Back to me. One said,

“I’ve heard stories of people that have gone to Build it Back and met with their caseworkers. And you have to bring every paper you’ve ever had in your life, tax forms, wage receipts, the whole thing.  And if you make this little over you don’t qualify. It’s wrong!”

Another added,

“And anybody that lives in that house that has income, that income is counted. So, like, I have a 23-year-old son who works at Pathmark ‘cause he’s waiting for Sanitation to call him. He doesn’t make a lot of money but he makes enough to survive. And they want that. Now I have my other son and his wife and two kids living with me so they would want his income. And well, my God, we could live up on Todt Hill with all that income!”

The third put it like this,

“Bloomberg came out in the beginning – and thank God they finally stopped running those commercials ‘cause I wanted to shoot the TV. “Repair. Repair, rebuild, get home.” And so this is what people were doing. This is why they maxed out their saving accounts, their credit cards, their 401K. Everything that they could possibly pull from to get themselves back in their homes. Now they’re being told all the money you just spent, there’s a chance they might get it back but more than likely we know bottom line they’re not going to.”

As the deadline for Build it Back approaches, many questions remain about what will happen next. Residents seeking aid for repairs and rebuilding worry they will spend many more months waiting for help, only to be determined ineligible. Those who are hoping to move wonder whether their houses will be acquired or bought out, and what will happen to the place they once called home. Even the government, as the state official emphasized to me, doesn’t have all the answers. Ultimately, he said, “we might just get all this land and figure out what to do with it later.

Image: Hildon Flores, Staten Island Advance

Image: Hildon Flores, Staten Island Advance

Liz Koslov is a PhD student in Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU. She is researching the buyout process on Staten Island as part of a dissertation on urban “managed retreat” and civic responsibility.

[1] Matthew Schuerman, “City’s Sandy Aid Program for Homeowners 3 Months Behind Schedule.” WNYC News, 6 Aug 2013.

[2] Jillian Jorgensen, “Build it Back Program a Hard Sell for Some Staten Island Hurricane Sandy Victims.” Staten Island Advance, 1 Aug 2013.

[3] See, for instance, Thomas Kaplan, “Homeowners in Flood Zones Opt to Rebuild, Not Move,” New York Times, 26 Apr 2013.