Barbara Vahey and her dog at the Walk a Mile in Our Shoes rally for Sandy relief funds in March.Barbara Vahey
As of April, New York State still had 589 households on FEMA’s rental assistance rolls, down from 90,944 in the months immediately following the storm. New Jersey still had 711, down from a high of 44,592.
But those numbers represent only a fraction of the actual unmet need in the two states, according to Walsh and other housing advocates. Walsh said that in addition to those who were on FEMA aid, there are thousands of others who are currently receiving no federal aid and have been waiting for state aid for months.
“The main issue we see is that, had the local programs worked, everything would be fine now,” said Fazeela Siddiqui, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Queens office. “FEMA’s done, but now everyone needs more time.”
The problems with the programs run by New York state, New York City and New Jersey are myriad, advocates say. They range from lost paperwork to confusing instructions on applications for aid, from language barriers between applicants and administrators to slow processing times.
New York City’s Sandy recovery program, Build It Back, is now being audited by the state comptroller, Scott Stringer.
“It disturbs me greatly there are 20,000 people on a waiting list and six homes have been rebuilt,” Stringer said recently. “This has gone on way too long.” And after months of criticism over New Jersey’s program, state lawmakers promised on Tuesday that aid would come quicker.
But for people like Vahey, quicker isn’t quick enough.
Vahey’s current rent is $2,200. She’s searched for something cheaper, but there’s nothing available that accepts dogs, and Vahey has been her son’s de facto dog sitter while he completes a tour of duty as a Marine. She’ll now have to pay that rent without the $1,500 a month from FEMA. She says that’s nearly impossible on her public school administrator’s salary and the money her husband earns from driving a bread truck 15 hours a day.
But even though her rent is too high, Vahey can’t move back home.
She said it’d cost nearly $100,000 to raise her small house high enough to meet the state’s new requirements. Without raising it, she can’t sell it — meaning she’s stuck paying a $100,000 mortgage, property tax and flood insurance for a house she can’t live in, in addition to the $2,200 a month she’s paying in rent.
She’s still waiting for the state to process her year-old application for money to help raise her home, or to buy it out so she can pay off the mortgage and move.
Until then, she said, she’s stuck waiting, and quickly racking up debt.
“There are thousands of us. We’re all struggling to survive because we’re not getting the money dedicated to Sandy,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re waiting for. The stress is unbelievable ... I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this.”