BY JON CRONIN
On a sweltering hot Monday morning in Rockaway Park, in front of a fenced off home that was untouched by Build It Back for the past five months, Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) declared that this displaced victim of Hurricane Sandy and two dozen others in the Rockaway Park neighborhood had been mistreated for too long.
“I am calling for the resignation of Amy Peterson [director of Build It Back] or her firing by Mayor de Blasio,” said Ulrich.
“The news that we’re making today may not seem very sexy to some people because there are lots of other things going on in the city, but for the families who are still not back in their home as we approach the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, this is bad news for them every single day,” said Ulrich, a potential GOP opponent to de Blasio next year.
He pointed out, “This is not a griping session. It’s not an opportunity to do political grandstanding, this is not a chance for me to take pot shots at the mayor, although, I’m happy to do that. The news that we’re making today is that I want to be the first elected official, probably be the only one to call on Mayor de Blasio to fire Amy Peterson or for her to resign as director of Build It Back.”
Ulrich stated that he believes Peterson gives 100 percent to her job, “but she is simply in over her head.” He said that could not effectively turn around the program. Ulrich doesn’t believe that Peterson and others who work at Build It Back should be collecting paychecks while hundreds of his constituents are still not in their homes.
Peterson took over as director of the program after de Blasio took office in early 2014. Until then, there had been little to no checks given to the hurricane victims.
Ellen Nichtern, 59, stood in front of her home at 211 Beach 117th St. in Rockaway Park, which her family purchased in 1968, and stated that Build It Back asked them to move out by Feb. 1 and since then, all they have done is erect a fence and hang permits.
Nichtern said the house is usually occupied by her, her 86-year-old mother, and brother, who lives in an apartment on the second floor and two women who have their own apartments above him. She is currently living with her mother in an apartment that Build It Back is paying for around the corner from her home.
She noted that Build It Back keeps telling her, “They’re working on it,” or don’t get back to her at all. “Their communication is terrible.” Nichtern applied to the program two weeks after Sandy in 2012.
Ulrich admonished the media for not covering this issue more often, “It seems they only do around the anniversary.” He added that he will hold a press conference every day, if it is necessary to get these people the attention they need.
Raul Contreras, a spokesperson for City Hall, released this statement after Ulrich’s press conference, “When Mayor de Blasio took office and appointed Amy Peterson to run the program, not one homeowner had received a check or seen construction. That is why this administration immediately overhauled the program and took over direct management – resulting in 80 percent of homeowners served to date. Further, $120 million in reimbursement checks have been issued to residents. We are continuing to elevate and rebuild homes across the City to complete the program – as the Mayor committed – by the end of this year.”
During the press conference, Ulrich stated that the contractors the city hired do not have the capacity to take on these projects and he does not believe they will be finished by the end of the year. “I want to know who is going to be held accountable.”
“It’s basically a jobs program,” he noted, which he said he wouldn’t mind “if it actually produced,” and added that de Blasio is not taking responsibility for it, “even though the buck stops with him.”
Nichtern added they paid for an already completed renovation of the house themselves, which included a revamped kitchen and dining room. “I lived in the living room for three years,” during construction she said, all that is left for Build It Back to do is raise the foundation and redo one room, her bedroom.
She added that she is not even allowed inside the home to air it out after several months of it being neglected.
Nichtern stated that her mother is “very depressed” and wants to return to the home she usually never leaves.
The main reason the City Department of Buildings gives for the delay is that her home is a multiple dwelling and is classified as a Single Room Occupancy. Nichtern claims that the house has never been changed since they bought it in 1968.
John Corey, a Rockaway Beach resident, said at Monday’s press conference that he backed out of the program after they told him they wouldn’t raise his house and only raise it to fill in his basement.
Nichtern’s next door neighbor, Elcy Naas, also had to move out on February 1. Her house has since been lifted, but no other work has been done and cannot be occupied.
The only other City Councilman in the Rockaways, Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton) has had a considerably different experience with the program. “Amy Peterson has helped revitalize the Build it Back program, which accomplished nothing prior to 2014,” said Richards. “She has been an excellent and incredibly responsive partner who ensures that my office is consistently updated on construction projects throughout my district in the Rockaways. I look forward to continuing to work with her and her team at Build It Back as we help get everyone back into a safer and more resilient home.”
A spokesperson from Richards office also noted that Peterson personally oversaw issues in their district with 15 homes that were overdue.
Build It Back Deadlines
Build it Back is notifying participators in the program of important deadlines to homeowners who they have to meet to finish the single family program and help homeowners return to safe and resilient housing. “We are asking homeowners to make final decisions, final payments and plans to move out of their homes so we can begin construction and other work,” they announced. These include deadlines for: Approving design, paying transfer amounts, and moving out.
Many of these deadlines have been communicated to homeowners for a period of time and they are making a final push to ensure everyone understands the deadlines and meets them.
They noted that they set a 14 day approval deadline for design approvals on June 1st. Over 90 percent of homeowners presented designs since June 1st have complied with the deadline, with 80 percent signing their designs and grant agreements at their initial meetings.
Reach Jon Cronin at 718-357-7400 x125, email@example.com or @JonathanSCronin