While Hurricane Sandy is just a memory for many New Yorkers, thousands of the city’s public housing residents are still living with temporary boilers, closed playgrounds, mold, and other damage to their buildings, apartments and outdoor spaces caused by the historic storm.

Real help is supposed to be on the way from the federal government, but now there are concerns about more delays and even the assuredness of the repair dollars themselves.

On March 31st, the City announced the allocation of approximately $3 billion in federal funding -the largest FEMA grant in the history of the agency- to repair and protect at least 33 New York City public housing developments that sustained severe damage during Sandy.

The FEMA funds are supposed to go to 14 developments in Manhattan, 12 in Brooklyn, and 7 in Queens. Half of the funds are designated for repairs, while the other half will be aimed at implementing resiliency measures to better protect developments from future storms. This includes new construction of elevated boilers, installation of flood barrier systems, and acquisition of stand-by generators.

But a New York City Council oversight hearing yesterday found that “there is no clear timeline to begin construction and upgrades, and FEMA funding agreements remain unsigned.”

“It is evident…that NYCHA has no timeline or scope of work for upgrading its Sandy-impacted developments,” said Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, chair of the public housing committee, in a statement after yesterday’s hearing. “NYCHA has only received $3.5 million from FEMA and it is not clear when it will receive the rest of the $3 billion grant it was promised.”

“There are still too many unanswered questions. I worry that months and years will go by and tenants will not see improvements,” Torres said.

Pushing for “Transparency and Accountability”

Torres said he would “continue to push NYCHA to articulate how it will ensure transparency and accountability to residents across the city.”

Richie Torres
New York City Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx.

Yesterday’s hearing was chaired by the Council’s committees on public housing and recovery & resiliency. According to a statement released by both committees, the origin of the FEMA funding for the NYCHA repairs is now also in question.

“The bulk” of the $3 billion FEMA grant will actually be coming from insurance companies, maintained Torres and recovery & resiliency committee chair Mark Treyger, “further muddying how the money will be delivered to NYCHA.”

Council members Torres and Treyger also stated that they requested copies of the FEMA-approved project worksheets and a spending plan for the funds from NYCHA “several weeks ago.” NYCHA has responded that it must complete several procedural steps before the worksheets are finalized, the Council members reported.

Major Endeavor for a Struggling Agency

Both Council members Torres and Treyger say they question whether NYCHA has the capacity and workforce necessary “to carry out these historic levels of repairs and upgrades.” The agency is consistently underfunded, and has been plagued by reports of internal dysfunction.

According to the Council, NYCHA Executive Vice President for Capital Projects, Raymond Ribeiro, testified yesterday that construction will take place at 35 developments. Some of the projects will begin this summer, and will take between a year and a half to 3 years to complete, depending on the scope of the work.

Approximately 10,000 construction jobs will be created by the upgrades, Ribeiro noted. Council members and NYCHA tenant leaders say they will be watching closely to see how many residents obtain these jobs.

According to the City, the FEMA grant is subject to NYCHA’s recently negotiated Project Labor Agreement with the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, as well as its affiliated unions – which gives NYCHA residents access to union jobs and training.

Council members and tenant leaders will also be tracking NYCHA’s development of specific timelines for work at each of the 35 developments, and the agency’s community engagement process as it carries out the upgrades.

“We want to ensure that this investment is appropriately monitored…and that public housing residents benefit from this funding,” said Reginald Bowman, President of the City-Wide Council of Presidents, which represents NYCHA residents. “The first priority must be an assessment and plan by engineers and architects that specialize in…these types of projects,” Bowman said.

Losing Time and Money

Temporary boiler installation at Red Hook Houses after Hurricane Sandy. Photo credit: Leticia Barboza / NYCHA.

Time is of the essence. NYCHA is reportedly spending nearly $467,000 a month to rent the temporary boilers that are still in use at impacted developments across the city.

And the city’s public housing stock is just as physically vulnerable today as it was before Sandy struck in 2012. Several major NYCHA developments lie in the city’s greatly expanded flood zones.

“Residents have serious questions regarding when work will finally begin…and when their lives will finally return to normal after hearing about this historic $3 billion [federal] commitment…Progress must be made on behalf of those families,” said Council Member Treyger.