By Jennifer Peltz
A Superstorm Sandy home-repair effort that was criticized for a sluggish start has now begun work on 535 homes, surpassing a goal set to show a turnaround, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday.
Much more work remains for the Build It Back program — an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 homes are eligible for repairs or reimbursements — but the mayor said the progress so far is "putting Build it Back back on track."
"Part one was to get this program moving. It had been dead in the water," he said after an unrelated news conference.
The storm hit in October 2012. Build It Back was created in June 2013, following a more basic repair program that was intended to make homes habitable. Build It Back can do more extensive work, including elevating homes above flood level, at no cost to the homeowner; it also can reimburse owners for repairs they did on their own.
When de Blasio took office Jan. 1, no households even had complete plans for Build It Back work.
In April, he said the city aimed to start 500 repair projects and send 500 reimbursement checks by Labor Day. To get there, the city hired more Build It Back staffers and eliminated income-priority categories that had held up some applications, among other changes. Meanwhile, the city has renegotiated $138 million in Build It Back inspection and case-management contracts down to $77 million, officials said.
Some 543 reimbursement checks totaling over $9 million have now been dispatched. Many repair plans are far enough along that the city now anticipates starting 50 projects a week, city housing recovery chief Amy Peterson said, though no formal benchmark has been established yet.
Some homeowners and their advocates have raised continuing concerns about red tape and the pace of repairs, but housing activists credited the city Tuesday with making strides.
"There is still much work to be done," said the Rev. Arthur Davenport, a minister at a church in the hard-hit Rockaways and a member of Faith in New York, the organizers of a July community meeting that drew about 1,000 people to discuss Build It Back. "But we applaud the administration for streamlining the process to make sure families are getting the aid they deserve."