Scant financial relief for many, a year after Sandy

Renters and nonprofits say relief funds slow to roll out – and some hold little hope of seeing the money at all

A condo rental in Seaside Heights, N.J., is boarded up in May.
Scott Eells/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Billions of dollars have been approved to help New York, New Jersey and other affected areas recover from the devastation Superstorm Sandy brought a year ago, but tens of thousands of people still can’t return home.

Of the $60 billion approved by Congress earlier this year to help Sandy recovery, the Federal Emergency Management Agency says $8.3 billion has been allocated to help New Yorkers, but The Associated Press reports that only $700 million has been disbursed.

With delivery of much of the relief aid so slow, many renters and nonprofit organizations aren’t holding out a lot of hope that it will arrive at all.

Housing aid for people who were displaced from rental apartments has been slow to come through because of failures by both the city and FEMA, according to Melissa McCrumb, a community organizer with Make the Road New York.

“It has been extremely difficult to even get a handle on how many renters are out there that are still displaced,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that “renters are falling through the cracks.”

Of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s $1.7 billion community development block grant for disaster relief approved for Sandy victims in New York City, only $19 million goes to rental assistance, McCrumb said.

She said that the plan the city drew up on paper would work well but that it has been extended to only a small number of renters affected by the storm, specifically those who have been living on the government’s dime in hotels.

Build It Back, a program providing assistance to Sandy victims, applies to low-income renters and provides subsidized rent for up to two years, city officials say.

“Funding is extremely limited, and households currently residing in the city’s hotel system will be prioritized. Initial income eligibility will be determined through the central Build It Back 311 intake process,” according to the program’s website.

In New York City, 311 is a nonemergency number to call for information about city services or to lodge complaints with authorities. But McCrumb, whose organization focuses on the needs of Latinos in the city, said the Spanish-language prompt on 311 has provided incorrect information that discourages the Spanish-speaking community from getting help. She said it has told people that only homeowners are eligible for the assistance.

“This is preventing those individuals from registering,” she said. “But also, word of mouth spreads, and other renters are not even calling to register because of misinformation.”  

'Whole new challenge'

McCrumb said that of the households registered for aid with FEMA, 56 percent are renters and 44 percent are homeowners. But she questioned the accuracy of the numbers because, she said, renters are less likely to be counted in FEMA registrations.

For residences where more than one family was living at the time of the storm, some FEMA applications for aid were denied because the system allows only one household per address to apply for help, McCrumb said.

Officials say the informal arrangements renters make in New York — such as sublets and multiple people or families living in one unit — can make providing relief more complex.

Federal aid to renters goes to people “who can document the fact that they are living there, that they have a residence, that it was a predisaster residence and that it was affected,” said William W. Dugan of New York state’s Department of Homeland Security. “For those folks who are unable to do that, we found out from this disaster, it sets up a whole new challenge.”

“I think that all too often, most of the press coverage has been on homeowners,” said Ted Houghton of the Supportive Housing Network of New York. He added that numerous multifamily dwellings on the edges of the city were hit very hard by the storm.

Many homeowners on Staten Island, on Long Island and in Breezy Point, Queens — where fire destroyed a hundred houses — are also waiting for assistance.

“Whether they’re renters or low-income homeowners, they say, ‘I need help now,’” said Peter Brest of the Met Council.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, seen by some as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, has been critical of the slow disbursement of federal relief funds. The governor was one of the faces of the Superstorm Sandy response and recently pointed the finger at the federal government for the delayed arrival of money.

“We’ve done everything we possibly can and, I think, in the immediate aftermath did a very good job,” Christie recently told The Associated Press. “Since then, we’ve kind of been hostage to two situations — the delay in the aid itself and then what I call the Katrina factor, which is the much more detailed and difficult rules surrounding the distribution of the aid.”

Nonprofit nonpayment?

Most nonprofit groups involved in the response to Superstorm Sandy don’t expect to get fully paid back by the government funds that support their efforts, and a majority of them don’t think the needs of their communities have been met, according to a new survey.

Nonprofits are still deeply involved with recovery efforts, providing financial assistance and help getting people into suitable homes — tasks that could take years to complete — according to a study released by the Human Services Council, an umbrella group of New York nonprofits.

Public officials and nonprofit organizers discussed Sandy response on Oct. 23 at the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York, where the report was released. 

Only 20 percent of nonprofits the report surveyed thought they would see complete reimbursement for the services they provided during and after the storm, often switching gears from their regular tasks to the specific needs of the storm. The shortfalls have forced nonprofits to cut costs in other places to make ends meet and in some cases caused them to fall short of their regular missions.

A FEMA official told Al Jazeera that understanding what nonprofits need was key to figuring out how to manage long-term recovery but that underlying issues, including a lack of affordable housing, have made recovery more difficult.

“I think it’s very useful that we have the discussion, try to gather the data and understand the size and the scope of it,” he said. “In the years that I’ve been in disaster response, government is putting more and more responsibility for long-term recovery on the nonprofit sector, and money is hard to come by in this economic climate.”

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