Build It Back Is Sucking Hundreds of Millions Out of Other Vital Resiliency Projects


New York City Councilmembers spat criticism and frustration at members of the de Blasio administration yesterday after learning that the city’s Build It Back program is $500 million over budget and will now require the administration to shift taxpayer money from other vital resiliency projects to pay for it.

Councilmembers first learned of the issues with the Superstorm Sandy recovery initiative in a Wall Street Journal report published on Wednesday night.

“It is an outrage,” said councilmember Mark Treyger, chair of the resiliency and recovery committee. “It is unacceptable and insulting that this council was notified about these cost overruns literally at the eleventh hour.”

According to Build It Back’s director, Amy Peterson, $350 million earmarked for other storm resiliency projects in the city’s budget, which is funded by tax dollars, will help cover the overrun. The remaining $150 million, already spent on other Sandy resiliency efforts, will become ineligible for reimbursement by the federal government.

Peterson insisted that no other projects, including the planned seawall on Staten Island’s eastern shore, would suffer delays or changes from the funding shift, but couldn’t tell the committee exactly which programs the money would be drawn from within the budget.

Build It Back was intended to help at least 22,000 families when it was launched, according to Treyger. In the oversight meeting yesterday, he asked Peterson exactly how many New Yorkers had been helped thus far. She had no answer for him.

The Voice recently reported that there are about 8,640 applicants in the program, less than half of the original number; in typical disaster recovery efforts, about 50 percent of all applicants to similar programs end up benefitting from it, according to Peterson.

Mayor de Blasio initially pledged to complete the Build It Back program by the end of 2016, but some are concerned the rush has driven costs unreasonably high and encouraged disregard for safety protocols. In light of the cost overrun, Peterson said the mayor will soon announce new goals for the program, and pledged to work to meet his ambitious deadline.

The program helps New Yorkers either demolish and rebuild or elevate homes along the coast and in the floodplain that were badly damaged in the storm four years ago. The initiative blew through $270 million just making repairs on single-family homes, and residents have complained of frequent miscommunication. In June, a Build It Back home under construction in Gerritsen Beach collapsed. No one was injured.

Councilmember Donovan Richards expressed concerns that contractors might be taking advantage of the city’s rush to meet self-imposed deadlines and inflating the cost of their services as a result, comparing the practice to bootleg DVD sellers on Jamaica Avenue. He plainly asked Peterson if current construction costs — a Tishman Construction bid will reportedly cost $50 million to rebuild just 53 homes in Queens —was cost-effective.

“That is not cost-effective for the city of New York,” Peterson replied, and added that the city is trying to renegotiate the bid.

Residents, many of them elderly or whose first language is not English, have struggled with confusion and delays, some of them still living among boxes, awaiting relocation according to Treyger and councilmember Steven Matteo, who oversee Coney Island and a large swath of Staten Island, respectively.

“How long are we going to go through this?” asked Matteo. His constituents, he said, are “going through hell.”

Treyger asked if the administration would be willing to consider extending or softening deadlines imposed on homeowners, stressing that helping as many people as possible is more important than meeting deadlines in “some public relations victory.”

Peterson’s answer was, in effect, no.

“To move this program forward and help these homeowners, we need to establish deadlines,” she said. Specific hardship cases, such as families who struggle to find temporary housing for the length of construction, are considered for extensions and special accommodations on a case-by-case basis.

Peterson explained that delays and cost increases were the result of the complex job of elevating low-lying houses in areas such as Broad Channel and Edgemere, both in Queens. In some cases, homes are lifted off their foundations, only to reveal that they need to be rebuilt altogether before they can be elevated and the houses set back down. Attached homes are even more complex, and require cooperation from both homeowners, even if one is not enrolled in the program. Demolition and rebuilding, including approval of home design, takes time, too.

She cited a city construction boom as one reason for the ballooned contractor costs. In many cases the cost of repairing a house far exceeds its value, though rebuilding them is not always a cheaper alternative. The program is also spending more money to relocate families while their homes are repaired and help them with rent payments, and to offer buyouts or resettlement elsewhere in the city, outside of the floodplain.

You can read more about the city’s sometimes-contradictory waterfront policy in last week’s Voice.