Eye On Real Estate: Annals Of Sandy
By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
New York is a tale of two cities – and we don't mean the one Bill de Blasio keeps talking about.
There's the New York still caught in the grip of Hurricane Sandy woes, and the New York that escaped her wrath unscathed, or nearly so.
As the anniversary of the Oct. 29 killer 'cane looms, property owners, residents and commercial tenants in waterfront Brooklyn neighborhoods continue to struggle with storm-related problems, while elsewhere Sandy is a fading bad memory.
“It's very hard for people outside the disaster zones to imagine our life,” Sue Fox, executive director of the Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton-Manhattan Beach, told Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
“The whole message is though we've done a lot – and we've learned a lot – the recovery of the community is nowhere near done.”
Fox and her staff see trouble first-hand because the Y is one of many subcontractors for the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York handling long-term case management for Sandy victims. Just that morning, a new client had called and spoken of being in dire financial straits because of the storm.
Discovering how long it takes to get storm-damaged communities back in good shape has been has been “a shock and a learning process,” she said: “Everybody's working as fast as they can. But it's incredibly complicated.”
Fox is fighting Sandy's continuing impact on another front – as the co-chair of a planning committee for a state initiative called the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Plan.
The program involves 102 communities statewide that are eligible for more than $750 million in government grants for locally conceived projects to foster post-storm recovery and resilience.
These are areas that were heavily impacted by Hurricane Sandy or Irene, or Tropical Storm Lee.
More than $500 million of the money comes from a federal supplemental appropriation that Gov. Cuomo and Congress obtained. At least $250 million is from the state's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which is funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The government spending is expected to trigger an estimated $3.2 billion in private investment. As an incentive to lenders to fund reconstruction in storm-slammed areas, the state will count those loans in tallying up their Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) ratings.
The CRA, created in 1977 to force banks to stop shunning poor communities, measures the amount of lending done in low- and moderate-income areas.
Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach, Coney Island and Sea Gate are considered a single community by NY Rising planners.
Fox's committee wants residents of those neighborhoods to offer their input on revitalization ideas in an ongoing series of public meetings – see www.stormrecovery.ny.gov to find the calendar.
“This is money that needs to be used wisely,” she said. “People's voices are wanted and needed.”
Sit-downs about post-storm reconstruction plans are also being scheduled in Gerritsen Beach and Sheepshead Bay, which is considered a single community by NY Rising, and in Red Hook.
Manhattan Beach is eligible for up to $5,408,150 in NY Rising funds and Brighton Beach is eligible for up to $4,199,827, the program's website indicates. There's as much as $6,148,567 allocated for Coney Island and as much as $3,547,832 for Sea Gate.
Gerritsen Beach – whose homeowners have been battling mold for months, as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle has reported – is eligible for up to $6,719,577 and Sheepshead Bay for up to $6,671,979. Up to $3 million is available for Red Hook.
Fox has been up to her neck in Sandy recovery efforts since the Shorefront Y reopened the Thursday after the killer storm roared through New York.
Though the Coney Island Avenue facility is right at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, in the midst of buildings that were inundated, it did not suffer any flooding.
It's on a slightly higher elevation than some other properties and doesn't have a basement, both of which apparently kept the Y dry. There was water in the backyard after Sandy came and went, but it drained into the sand.
The quickly reopened Y was a place for folks to take showers. In short order it became a New York City Relief and Distribution Center site. After that it housed a FEMA disaster recovery center, all the while carrying out regular Y programs from child care to swimming classes.
Now, looking forward, she sees the task of rebuilding safe, affordable housing just beginning. One big problem is what to do about former tenants of basement apartments – legal and illegal – that are no longer usable.
And what of the homeowners who legally rented out first-floor apartments that are no longer allowed to be used as residences because of new flood-zone definitions?
“If the family counted on that income, how will they survive?” she said.
Big landlords and individual homeowners both face looming trouble concerning flood insurance.
“To this day, there's great confusion about what insurance will cost them,” she said.
There's also the worry that when the weather turns cold, will there be problems with new heating systems installed post-Sandy?
How to boost businesses is another concern – along with how to make things work better when the next storm comes along. Bad post-storm phone and Internet service wreaked havoc in waterfront areas.
“We need better infrastructure for communication,” she said. “The Internet is not a luxury – it is a tool for survival.”
THE IMPLACABLE SEA
Another member of the planning committee Fox co-chairs, Pinny Dembitzer, hopes a piece of NY Rising's grant money will go to Sea Gate to help pay for a desperately needed sea wall.
Having a strong sea wall on the western tip of Coney Island, where the gated community is located, will help other neighborhoods too the next time a storm bears down, he argues.
“Protect the peninsula,” he said.
Sea Gate's got a situation: As a private community – which is a highly unusual thing in New York City – its homeowners association bears the cost of maintaining roads, sewers – and the sea wall.
Both FEMA and the city decided not to foot the bill for rebuilding the barrier that protects the neighborhood from the implacable sea.
Sandy wrecked three-quarters of the wall along Sea Gate's two-mile waterfront. Aside from the segments of the wall that are on individual homeowners' properties, it is the responsibility of the Sea Gate Association.
Even before the storm, the homeowner group in the middle-class enclave was barely getting by on dues and fees. There's no cash in the coffers and no way to assess homeowners for the millions of dollars needed to rebuild the wall.
The association has hired an engineer to draw up a rebuilding plan for the sea wall, and a grant writer, said Dembitzer, who is the association president. The group, which is a 501(c)(4) non-profit, has formed an offshoot that's a 501(c)(3) in order to be eligible for grant money.
Most of the 850 one-to-three-family homes in the community were damaged by Sandy. Around 95% of the residents are back in their homes now, he said.
Some 25 houses were beyond repair; some of those have been torn down. Others won't be rebuilt until the sea wall is reconstructed.
People are patient; they know it will take time to rebuild the protective barrier.
“We just hope – and pray – there's no hurricane,” he said. “So far we've been lucky.”
Along Atlantic Avenue, Sea Gate's shore-front road, impeccably renovated houses share blocks with battered properties that are for sale and homes in various stages of reconstruction. A lot at 4006 Atlantic Ave. where a damaged house was demolished sold for $980,000 in August, city property records indicate.
FEMA said it will help Sea Gate with another Sandy-related real estate problem: it will pay 75% of repair costs for damaged century-old sewers. The homeowners association must pay the other 25%.
First, Sea Gate Association is required to take subterranean photos and video of the sewers – a $100,000 project. A camera mounted on a snake does the job, which is 50% finished.
'THE FORGOTTEN CONEY ISLAND'
On Coney Island streets outside Sea Gate's fences, Sandy-induced misery remains.
The West End, as residents call it, stands at a grim remove from the amusement and entertainment district by Coney's fabled Boardwalk, which reopened last summer after months of rebuilding.
“The amusement area was booming – it was fantastic. But the West End of Coney is bleak,” said Mermaid Avenue merchant Edwin Cosme.
“It's like the forgotten Coney Island,” said Cosme, who closed an electronics store because of Sandy flooding and recently opened a cafe called Piece of Cake in its place.
“When you tell outsiders you live in Coney, they say, 'Where do you live, on the roller coaster?' They don't know there's a whole West End community impacted by the storm,” he said.
Mermaid Avenue is pockmarked by storefronts that have been vacant since Sandy struck and development sites that are for sale. A big building on the corner of Mermaid and W. 17th Street is shrouded in construction netting with a Chase Bank branch located in a trailer behind it.
Property owners on W. 15th to W. 20th Streets have storm-damaged basement apartments that are too expensive to fix, said Cosme, who also owns a Mermaid Avenue beauty parlor that was storm-damaged. Those landlords are cutting rents on first-floor apartments to draw tenants or leaving them vacant – people are loath to live in them, fearing another storm.
At a half-a-dozen houses on W. 36th Street, and others around the corner on Canal Avenue, sinkholes that opened up around shared sewer lines are Sandy's continuing legacy.
The hole on Rocco Brescia's property starts in his front yard and runs under the front of his house. FEMA won't cover the cost of filling it because it's partly outdoors – though the agency did aid property owners with sinkholes confined to their crawl spaces. His insurer said the problem is not covered.
Brescia's got his hands full with other woes. The first floor of his home was flooded with five feet of water and is still under renovation while he lives in a rental in Gravesend. His insurance payout wasn't big enough to cover needed repairs. The Rebuilding Together program is helping him out.
For now the sinkhole, which would cost $3,700 to fill, will have to wait. And the longer he waits, the bigger the hole gets, he said.