Winter looming, New York rushes to repair homes hit by superstorm Sandy

Hiring private contractors to repair homes quickly, New York responds to disaster relief in its own entrepreneurial way. Will the city be able to get people back in their homes before year's end?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Marc Alvarez (second from l.) talked with a flood insurance adjuster last month outside his home on Staten Island in New York City. The house was wrecked by superstorm Sandy.

New York is writing its own chapter on how a big city can respond to a massive disaster – superstorm Sandy – that has made tens of thousands of homes unfit to live in.

The title of the chapter: Let business do it.

For the short term, the city's largest effort involves putting together, at the federal government's expense, private-sector teams of electricians, plumbers, and carpenters who will repair homes while city inspectors monitor the work.

New York is also trying smaller efforts to get people housed, such as recruiting real estate management companies to find empty apartments. And the city has embraced online services such as Airbnb, which is connecting warmhearted New Yorkers who have a spare room with those in need of a warm bed.

All this is being done in a New York minute.

Unlike New Orleans, when it was trying to recover from hurricane Katrina, New York has cold, snowy weather bearing down on it. So it's trying to move fast, with a goal of getting as many people as possible back in their homes by the end of the year.

"We are breaking new ground here. It has never been done this way before," says Corinne Packard, an expert on postcatastrophe reconstruction and an assistant professor at the New York University Schack Institute of Real Estate. "And true to Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg's philosophy, it is private-sector-driven."

In 2005 after Katrina, New Orleans endured months of bickering over who was at fault and whether to rebuild. "In New Orleans there were many missteps," says Wellington Reiter, an architect who at the time was at Tulane University in the city.

Back then, urban planners and advisory groups of architects met with neighborhood community groups in planning sessions, Ms. Packard recalls. "In New York, I haven't seen a plan," she says. "But maybe this is the right way to do this quickly."

New York officials quickly decided that they did not want to set up "Katrina trailers" or other forms of temporary housing. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had brought in 145,000 small white mobile homes after Katrina, which were controversial.

In New York, "the way we look at it is that the best temporary housing is permanent housing," says Cas Holloway, the city's deputy mayor for operations.

City officials also realized that they needed to find a more efficient way to get licensed electricians, plumbers, and carpenters to people.

"If everyone picked up the phone and dialed for an electrician or a plumber, you will have an immediate market failure," Mr. Holloway says. Instead, the city decided to hire six very large private contractors that would be divided among the boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.

"With that kind of efficiency, you will get it done cheaper and faster than if everyone has to do it on their own," the deputy mayor says. As of late November, there were 7,500 requests for so-called Rapid Repairs teams.

The city estimates it will have 500 to 600 teams operating by early December. It takes each team about a day to get heat, hot water, and electricity to a house or apartment. "Our goal is to get as many done this calendar year as possible," Holloway says.

The city's efforts can't come soon enough for Virginia Fernandez and her family, who were living in the Rockaway section of Queens.

Just before Thanksgiving, her home still had seawater in the electric-meter equipment. Ms. Fernandez, her 6-year-old son, her mother, and her husband were keeping warm by running the apartment's gas oven. When the city turned off the gas, most of the family moved temporarily to Harrisburg, Pa., to live with friends. In December Fernandez and her son moved to Manhattan to live with another friend. As of Dec. 2, she says her house in the Rockaways remained without heat and electricity.

"I need to return [to Queens] because I like the school that my son is in," she says. But her landlord has told her that he has no money to fix the two-family house, she says.

This is the type of situation that Mr. Bloomberg says he wants to remedy with the Rapid Repairs teams. In late November, at a press conference, he warned landlords they must restore services. If they don't have the resources, he said, they can call the city, which would get the contractors to do the work. The city has authorized $500 million for the program, which will be paid for by FEMA.

While the city tries to work with households on essential services, it is also trying to get private apartment managers to help find temporary housing for those who may have to wait months for their homes to dry out and be rebuilt. In theory, several thousand apartments and houses might be available this way.

"Because New York has plenty of secondary resources and the overall rental market is so much greater than [in] New Orleans, when I talk to people at FEMA and HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development], they feel confident they can find housing for people over the next six months," says Marc Roy, who was a FEMA official in Louisiana during Katrina and is now an adjunct professor of disaster management at Tulane.

But real estate executives say the effort is filled with challenges. "People are not sure how long they will be out of their homes," says Dottie Herman, president of Douglas Elliman, one of the city's leading real estate brokerages.

For example, she says, one landlord was willing to donate 150 new rental apartments to people who could show they were displaced. The Sandy victims would get two months of free rent. "But they had to agree to be in the apartment for a year," she says.

Landlords also would want some sort of legal protections because they might not have time to vet prospective renters as thoroughly as they would like. "God forbid if I rent to a pedophile or a murderer," Ms. Herman says.

Many New Yorkers have found shelter through, a marketplace for people to list or find short-term accommodations such as a spare bedroom. Airbnb, based in San Francisco, normally handles the financial exchange between two parties. In Sandy cases, however, the spaces were donated. At one point, there were more than 600 such listings.

In Brooklyn, Liani Greaves, a professional organizer who rents out part of her home, used Airbnb after an expected tenant canceled because of Sandy.

"I felt I had this empty space, and it was wrong for it to just sit there," Ms. Greaves says. "It was completely furnished and ready to go."

She ended up giving the space for 10 days to Kyra Groves, her 2-year-old son, and her fiancé. Their apartment had been flooded, and Ms. Groves expected to be out of her home at least until the new year.

She was grateful for the shelter.

"Even knowing that there are people who care and are compassionate helps," says Groves, whose family later moved in with her sister in a small apartment.

David Taylor, who lives on Staten Island, where much of the south shore was flooded out, has opened his home through Airbnb. After watching Bloomberg ask people to help others, Mr. Taylor volunteered to house two FEMA workers (who were charged for the space) and a retired couple whose home was condemned.

"The people who are retired lost everything – they literally had to swim out of their house – so everything they have is donated," says Taylor, who is married and has a young son.

"It was very, very tight," he says, describing the living conditions. But the situation turned out to be only temporary: The FEMA workers left when their work was done, and the retirees found more permanent housing.

Indeed, people finding more permanent housing is the goal, even in the short term.

"If you fix a few simple things, then the person can deal with getting back on their feet," Holloway says. "And you don't have to track the family as they go from place to place. Let's get them back in their home right away."

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How many people are affected?

As many as 25,000 people in New York City may be without heat and electricity, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in late November. However, he quickly added, "No one really knows because people may have left their houses to stay with neighbors or family members or taken a room in a hotel."

The number of homes that have been damaged or destroyed in the city has also been hard to pin down. Mr. Bloomberg initially estimated 40,000, but that number was reduced to 10,000. In late November, workers were going door to door to get a better idea of where people were living.

New Jersey says it lost 30,000 homes and businesses, New York State said it had 305,000 homes damaged or destroyed, and Connecticut had 3,000 homes damaged. By comparison, hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed 255,700 homes, according to the Commerce Department.

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