Occupy Sandy is a grassroots non-hierarchical community-led disaster relief network. We had numerous hubs throughout the affected areas that worked in solidarity with and were accountable to the neighborhoods we served. We were often the source of information for FEMA, the City, OEM and the Red Cross about on-the-ground needs. We gave out $3.5 million in aid, directed over 50,000 volunteers and have spawned numerous long-lasting community organizations and empowerment projects that continue to this day.
We would like to offer comments to the City of New York’s Substantial Amendment 5 that governs the program allocation. We believe that this funding is an opportunity to redress the long-standing issues and inequities in New York City. For too long the City has been going down the path of homogenization and corporatization, which has led to gentrification and widespread economic and racial displacement. We need to stop this trajectory and redirect this City to develop in an inclusive, transparent, and equitable manner that leads to an affordable, sustainable, and healthy City. We urge the City to consider the following for those in need:
1. Disperse money faster.
Seems simple, but the City has created more ways to find fraud than to provide aid. It’s been over a year since the storm and most people have not received a penny in aid from the City. The longer aid is delayed, the more expensive a disaster becomes. We strongly advise the City to work with local community organizations and Long Term Recovery Groups (LTRGs) to figure out what are the holdups and gaps in getting aid to Sandy survivors. The City should do everything in their power to get the money out within the next 6 months to those most in need.
2. Re-vamp Build It Back.
As the primary vehicle through which Sandy survivors can receive disaster relief, Build It Back has so far been an unconditional failure. If this is to be the City’s primary relief program, it must work harder to provide real relief now instead of creating additional barriers to accessing aid.
3. Reopen registration for Build It Back and focus outreach to renters and low-income residents.
Initial outreach was insufficient and many New Yorkers who haven’t applied are now shut out of the process. 155,297 households registered for FEMA in NYC while only 25,699 registered for Build It Back. Renters make up the majority of those affected by Superstorm Sandy according to FEMA registrations, and yet are underrepresented in the current registrants of Build it Back; which further implies that their needs are not being met
4. Increase funding for rental assistance (Temporary Disaster Assistance
Program). Ensure TDAP is accessible to undocumented Sandy survivors.
The majority of households affected by the storm were renters, and renters affected by Sandy are more likely to be low-income and people of color than Sandy-impacted homeowners, yet renters are not being served proportionally to their homeowning neighbors. Many renters are experiencing significant rent increases as a result of Sandy, and still others remain displaced.
5. Include elevation assistance for all applicants in Zone A.
Due to existing regulations of the National Flood Insurance Program and changes enacted in the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012, the cost of flood insurance for homes and businesses in a flood hazard zone is increasing exponentially. These increases are already hitting homeowners on renewal of their premiums. Resilient housing would lower these premiums. We strongly believe that the City should work with the state in finding additional funding streams to help elevate housing to FEMA resiliency standards. This would save money for the NFIP and taxpayers in the long run.
6. Lift the “lis pendens” bar to Build It Back assistance.
Currently, the Build It Back program puts on hold the application of any homeowner with a lis pendens—the initial foreclosure document—filed against his or her property. In order to remove this hold, the homeowner must demonstrate that the lis pendens has been resolved or will imminently be resolved. The rationale that Build It Back offers for this lis pendens hold is that the City does not want to rebuild properties for the banks. While we agree that rebuilding for banks would be horrible policy, we find that this policy assumes foreclosure too fast, thereby creating more foreclosures. A study by the Furman Center has shown that less than 20 percent of lis pendens filings resulted in a foreclosure auction or the property becoming bank-owned. Many of these homeowners will retain their homes through loan modifications, or by becoming current once their temporary, often Sandy-induced, hardship has passed. By denying these homeowners aid or delaying their aid to the point where it has little value, the Build It Back program is dooming properties to foreclosure that would not otherwise be lost. Even for those properties that will eventually be sold at auction or revert to bank ownership, refusing to allow their repair means that these properties will be unmarketable, and, most likely, sit vacant and unrepaired for years if not decades. The current lis pendens bar to Build It Back benefits is overly broad and harmful to homeowners and communities. This policy should be eliminated, or more finely tailored to, for example, only include properties on which a judgment of foreclosure has been entered.
7. Provide temporary housing assistance to those who must vacate their homes during rebuilding.
Under the current Build It Back program, homeowners and tenants whose homes were so badly damaged that they must vacate the structure while it is being restored will not be given any assistance with their temporary housing costs. For homeowners who must make mortgage payments while they pay for temporary rental housing, the lack of temporary housing assistance could put them into mortgage default. Likewise, tenants may lose their leases, and small landlords face financial hardship, if funds are not made available to defray temporary housing costs.
8. Extend rehabilitation/elevation assistance for secondary units of small landlords (1-4 units) earning under 50% AMI.
Landlord assistance is currently only offered to those with four or more units, but many individuals in places like Staten Island and the Rockaways are not only elderly and disabled but are the smallest of landlords and depend on rent from small structures such as bungalows as their only source of income.
9. Bolster healthcare facilities in affected areas.
Sandy has reduced hospital capacity in many areas to just one hospital covering multiple zip codes. For instance, the Rockaways Peninsula has only one hospital, St. John’s Hospital, which is struggling to serve the needs of the peninsula. The larger and more comprehensive of 2 primary Staten Island hospitals — Staten Island University Hospital — is located in a flood zone. CDBG-DR funds should be directed toward improving existing healthcare facilities and expanding healthcare services for struggling Sandy-affected areas.
10. Create local jobs with CDBG funds; include day laborers.
Many New Yorkers lost their jobs because of Sandy. Some of these jobs have still not returned, leaving many families continuing to struggle to meet their basic needs. All CDBG-DR funding includes the Section 3 requirement, which is HUD’s local hiring provision. The City can go above what it is required by federal rules to ensure that jobs created are good jobs, going to New Yorkers, particularly Sandy survivors and day laborers already volunteering in our communities. NYC needs to create requirements that encourage the hiring of Sandy survivors and local day laborers under dignified wages. Why not put disaster aid funds to work locally by hiring locally?
11. Create New Models for Funding the Development of New Deeply Affordable Units.
Sandy survivors are struggling with finding and maintaining safe, healthy, and affordable housing since the storm. The affected neighborhoods have seen a drastic spike in rents. While many homeowners are living in moldy and unfinished homes, others have been unable to return their communities despite a strong desire to do so. By thinking creatively to leveraging funds as a means to access additional federal resources, the City could create a considerable amount of new deeply affordable housing. We say deeply affordable because we want this new affordable housing to be truly affordable to low-income New Yorkers. The neighborhoods impacted by Sandy were some of the last reasonable priced units in the City and we want to ensure that these neighborhoods recover for those who lived here before the storm.
12. Redevelopment through acquisition should create affordable housing only. Assistance to lanlords should contain a requisite for affordability.
The CDBG-DR Amendment should clarify that all properties acquired through the acquisition program be dedicated to housing that is affordable to those who live there now and that all rental units repaired or rebuilt with public funds are required to be rented at affordable rates for a minimum of 10 years. The City should dedicate funds specifically for the development of affordable housing.
13. Reserve “relocation allowance” for homeowners with underwater mortgages in the acquisition program.
Under the Build It Back acquisition program, homeowners will be offered the post-storm value of their homes as the purchase price, plus a relocation benefit. Some homeowners interested in acquisition have “underwater” mortgages, meaning that the mortgage debt exceeds the value of the property. This excess debt greater than the home value can claim any additional benefits, including “relocation benefits”, for the bank. CDBD-DR funds should not provide windfall profits to banks. If a bank wants to foreclose on a property, they should simply receive the fair market value of the home, as is typical in any foreclosure, and not receive any additional funds. We therefore urge the city to pay post-storm values to banks, with any excess valuation going to the homeowner and not the mortgage bank.
14. Invest in and Bolster Resiliency in New York City Public Housing.
Maintaining the City’s Public Housing stock is incredibly important as it provides essential housing to very low-income New Yorkers. NYCHA has long struggled with underfunding and long list of uncompleted repairs. Now is the time to make NYCHA more resilient and green-energy efficient while maintaining accountability and transparency.
We urge the City to embrace inclusive and equitable policies as outlined above to help turn struggling Sandy-affected neighborhoods to vibrant examples of recovery that will inspire NYC as a whole.
Occupy Sandy Policy Working Group and Spokescouncil