7 years after Sandy, most are back in their homes — but they're not quite whole

Originally published in Newsday on October 27, 2019.

Seven years after superstorm Sandy, Island Park natives Laura and Gerard Hassett said they are grateful — and nearly broke.

They have an elevated, spacious home overlooking the tranquil waters of a South Shore bay, and on a clear day they can see One World Trade Center in Manhattan. But the Hassetts are upset they still have nearly $250,000 in home equity loans to pay back despite using the state-run NY Rising Housing Recovery Program after the storm burst into their Colonial like an uninvited guest who wreaked havoc and never really left.

“I’m so happy to be home and I’m very happy here,” Laura Hassett said as the seventh anniversary of the Oct. 29, 2012, storm approached. “But the financial hardship is scary, and we’ll never be able to work enough to fix it.”

Their plight is not unlike many other storm victims who participated in  programs for single-family homeowners: Though the vast majority of people are back home, some struggle still in an aftermath fraught with a mountain of bills, legal battles with contractors, and state officials and banks that claim they need to give money back, often tens of thousands of dollars. 

Besides the Hassetts, they include Phyllis Boland of East Rockaway, who's in a new home that she said could be unsafe for her severely disabled son; Harold "Skip" Wade of Amityville, who is fighting to get money he says he's owed; and Freeport's Diana Johnson, who rated her overall satisfaction level an 8 out of 10.

The federal government devoted $4.6 billion in federal Housing and Urban Development funds to help victims of superstorm Sandy and tropical storms Irene and Lee. The housing program consists of repairs and reconstruction and may include optional elevation, a mandatory elevation program for those in high-risk flood zones, and an interim mortgage assistance program for people displaced while their homes get rebuilt. Yet another program allowed homeowners to sell their homes to the state for resale or demolition to return the properties to nature.

The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery reported last month to the State Legislature in Albany that 7,451 of the 10,207 Nassau and Suffolk homeowners in the flagship housing recovery program — or 73% — were “closed out,” meaning they received their last check, completed renovations and provided final documentation. Those numbers don’t include another 5,597 homeowners who were deemed ineligible, according to the report. That’s up from 6,423 of 11,053, or 58%, closed out by the same time last year.

Using a different yardstick, the agency reported to Newsday this month that 93% of the homes in the program were closed out, that 78% of 3,310 elevations were completed and that 878 bulkheads had been replaced or repaired.

GOSR officials explained the different numbers by saying the 93% figure represents homeowners who have completed their required repairs and have met HUD’s standard to rebuild a "decent, safe and sanitary" home, while the 73% figure is the result of an accounting measure required by the State Legislature that "combines required repairs with optional work, which can mean some projects can still be counted as ongoing or in progress."

“Through the NY Rising Housing Recovery Program, the state has provided more than $1 billion directly to more than 10,000 storm-impacted Long Islanders, helping them build back stronger and smarter,” said Thehbia Hiwot, executive director of NY Rising Housing Recovery, Buyout and Acquisition Programs, in a statement. “These recovery and resiliency efforts have helped to strengthen communities by improving New York’s housing stock and investing in the resiliency of Sandy-damaged communities so that the region is prepared for the new normal of extreme weather cycles.”

The path for many homeowners was rocky from the beginning. Participants bemoaned a web of bureaucratic issues, from long delays in getting money disbursed and confusing forms to a revolving door of case workers who often lost paperwork. Now, residents are back home, but the storm’s negative effects linger in government and private sector shortcomings.

“There were some failures of government,” said DuWayne Gregory, presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature and the architect of a Sandy Task Force that has collected testimony and data about how Long Islanders fared in the storm and the recovery programs. The report has not been released yet, but Gregory said it contains some critical remarks about how agencies responded to residents’ needs and includes recommendations on how not to repeat those mistakes.

“There are still people waiting for reimbursement and still out of their homes,” he said, adding that the main vehicle of recovery, the NY Rising program, did not meet everyone’s needs. “There wasn’t necessarily clear guidance." 

The office of State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) is still receiving complaints from dissatisfied residents, with at least 47 active cases this month.

"Many communities I represent still face chronic flooding that dramatically impacts their residents’ quality of life,” Kaminsky said. “The funding allotted after the storm and the anti-flooding projects they are supposed to pay for has the potential to uplift and breathe new life into the communities by making serious infrastructure upgrades.

"But those communities desperately need these projects built and are frustrated at the pace of progress," he said. "We should all redouble our efforts to get these projects over the finish line and not forget what those beleaguered residents are going through."

Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said that while few of his constituents are out of their homes, their lives are still not whole.

“The issue with Sandy is that there were so many people left behind,” he said, referring to many who used personal and Small Business Administration loans before NY Rising was afloat instead of taking advantage of the grant money. “People took proactive action and they are left holding the bag where they have a subsidized loan and everybody else got a grant.”

Other advocates for Sandy victims, such as Beth Walker of West Islip, who served on Suffolk's task force, said some homeowners are targets of so-called clawbacks by the state and banks who want to recover funds they say were improperly granted or misused.

"It’s unfortunate that so many people initially applied for SBA loans and now they are getting hit with recaptures because that's considered a duplication of benefits," she said, referring to federal law that bars payments from two sources for the same service or product.

The Hassetts, who used $247,000 through NY Rising to raise their waterfront home 8 feet, said they had to secure two home equity loans totaling $250,000 to pay another contractor to finish the job after a dispute with their first contractor. They own two properties on the same lot and were mandated by law to lift the houses because their home is on the water. They seek a reimbursement from the agency, called a demonstrable hardship, to offset their payments to the second contractor.

But their request for a hardship was flatly denied last month.

“We were told that we had to elevate,” said Laura Hassett, a nurse and mother of boys aged 4, 12 and 16. “We met our responsibility on our end and there was no responsibility on the other end. We live in Island Park because we can’t carry a $500,000 mortgage. We can take care of our family, but we can’t handle this kind of money. Where’s the accountability from our government?”

NY Rising officials said they have asked the family to submit additional documentation on their case, adding that they are reviewing the "documentation so we can provide as much assistance as possible."

Johnson said she used NY Rising's elevation funds to lift her Nassau Road home. She was displaced for nearly two years and used the Interim Mortgage Assistance program, rating it a clear success. The elevation will prevent a repeat of Sandy — when 5 feet of water that rushed into her split-level home — and also lowered her homeowner and flood insurance premiums.

"When will you ever have an opportunity where somebody provides you with grant money that you don't have to pay back?" she asked, recalling how she decided to use NY Rising programs. "If I had to rate it, it would probably be between a 7 and an 8 — an 8, I would say. But that's with a lot of effort on my part."

Wade, 66, used $100,000 in NY Rising elevation funds to lift his Bingham Place home, though he had finished renovation work with his own funds — homeowner and flood insurance — shortly after the storm. He said he was due to receive another $17,000 after he appealed the award granted by insurance but that his mortgage company released only $12,000. It said one of his contractors said Wade still owed him $5,000, and the bank gave the funds to the contractor, he said.

Wade said the contractor had signed off on the bill as paid in full as far back as 2016. He is still trying to convince his mortgage holder that he doesn’t owe the funds and that they should give it to him.

“Dealing with the bank was a hard issue,” he said. “I had to get up all my courage to talk to them and I’m still dealing with that issue. It’s still up in the air. That check never should have been sent out.”

Last year, just before the sixth Sandy anniversary, Boland was all grins as her Adams Street home in East Rockaway was under construction. She took part in the NY Rising reconstruction program, and today she's in an elevated home with an exterior elevator for her 28-year-old son on the same spot as the home that was beaten by the storm and then demolished.

But she said the shape of the house prevents him from easily moving about in his wheelchair. His room is too small to accommodate a caretaker who might need to sleep nearby as he needs 24-hour care and constant supervision.

"I can't get the wheelchair in his room because of the inappropriate design," she said, adding that the house has other glitches, including the heating and air conditioning, misaligned doors, a faulty elevator — that once got stuck — and a living room that barely holds a modest couch and love seat. "There's no living space for us to gather as a family, and it's unsafe for my son."

Boland is among the many residents who sought help from elected officials when she needed an extension of the Interim Mortgage Assistance program. Since Sandy, she has moved five times and incurred tremendous new debt, she said.

Her new fight is to secure funds for construction that could give her son more room to maneuver and provide space for a caretaker to sit or take a nap by his side.

Officials said they put Boland on a fast track that got her a new home by creating one for her and completing it in months, adding, "We also have worked with the family in the months since to make sure they have a fully functional house for their needs."

NY Rising gave her hope and a new home, but she said it's not the same as her old one, which was built in 1911 and featured a fireplace, stained glass windows, Tiffany lamps and other vintage touches.

"Everybody knows you’re not going to end up with the same exact house, especially mine, which was a classic house, but I also didn't expect this," she said. "I don’t feel like a victim. I would just like it to be fixed — and there’s a difference between the two.”