Displaced by Sandy, LI renters long for home

Laura Manno of Long Beach lost everything in superstorm Sandy. She has a part-time job and has rental assistance until April but doesn't know what she will do if she can't pay rent.

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Long Island renters displaced by superstorm Sandy, facing a lack of available housing and rising costs, are increasingly desperate to find stable places to live 17 months after the storm -- and to avoid eviction or even homelessness.

The disaster left these storm victims -- in many cases residents with little to spare -- competing for housing with one another and with flooded-out homeowners, further straining a rental market in Nassau and Suffolk counties that lacks affordable options.

The tally of damaged rental units from that terrible night in October 2012, plus tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011, rose to nearly 9,000 on Long Island alone, government figures show.

New York's disaster recovery officials said they are set to roll out programs to address the continuing dearth of rental housing. But for Henrietta Adler and other tenants struggling to find a decent place to live, time is running out fast.

Adler, a single mother in Oceanside, said she and her children -- Daniel, 18, and Raquel, 17 -- have moved three times since Sandy flooded their first-floor apartment in the Woodcrest Village Park complex. They have gone from staying in someone's living room for two months, to sleeping in a relative's basement, to taking a temporary second-floor apartment back at Woodcrest.

Last month, she received a letter from a representative of the complex's management, saying she must vacate by the end of this month. Tenants and a FEMA spokesman said the 105-unit complex, built in 1976, is slated for demolition because of storm damage.

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The for-rent places she has found cost several hundred dollars more each month than the $1,550 she was paying before Sandy took muck from a canal and plunked it in the family's two-bedroom apartment. She continues to pay that amount in her current apartment.

"It's just destroying me," said Adler, 56, a cashier at a natural-foods supermarket and a real estate agent. "I am devastated, and I feel the same as when I was homeless right after the storm. Even though I am sitting on my couch, I don't feel settled at all."

Representatives of the Woodcrest Village Park Association and the Feil Organization that manage and own the buildings did not respond to multiple requests for comment on their tenants.

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Few options for renters

Long Island's underlying housing shortage left renters with few options after Sandy's wind-driven waters flooded the building complexes, houses and basements in which they lived, said Richard Guardino, executive dean of the Wilbur F. Breslin Center for Real Estate Studies at Hofstra University.

"When you start out with a deficit and you try to add all these potential renters, two things happen: Rents go up, and people have a difficult time trying to find a place," he said.

While "there's a human concern there for fellow Long Islanders," Guardino said it's also in the region's long-term economic interests to assist renters. "Long Island has a significant service industry, and if the people aren't there, ultimately the industries will suffer."

Many were pushed to the verge of homelessness by Sandy, said Melissa McCrumb, a senior organizer on Staten Island with the advocacy group Make The Road New York, a nonprofit membership organization in working-class communities.

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"It's a much tighter housing market," McCrumb said. "Landlords have not gotten enough resources to rebuild and so, as a result, they are repairing their houses out-of-pocket . . . and it's renters that bear the brunt."

In areas affected by Sandy, she said, residents "have seen huge rent increases."

Long Island's rental vacancy rate of 4.3 percent means the region has fewer available units than any other suburban area in the New York region, according to a September 2013 study by the New York City-based Regional Plan Association. The report, which pegged the overall suburban vacancy rate at 6.7 percent, noted that Sandy had only exacerbated the situation.

The storm response mobilized government resources through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the state's reconstruction programs collectively known as New York Rising, and a host of nonprofit relief efforts.

FEMA funds were intended as a stopgap to help people get back on their feet, not to address long-term housing needs, officials said.

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$45M for LI renters

As of Jan. 31, FEMA had disbursed more than $45 million in emergency aid to 19,000 Sandy-displaced renter households on Long Island, according to agency figures. That included funds to assist with rent and to replace clothing and furniture.

In 13 counties in the state that reported Sandy damage -- including New York City's five boroughs -- FEMA gave more than $132 million to nearly 74,000 renter households. More than 53,000 of those were in the city.

State disaster recovery officials said help is coming from a separate funding stream -- the millions in Community Development Block Grant funds from HUD going to the New York Rising program.

From $3.8 billion coming to the state, not including New York City, in two installments of block-grant funds, $200 million is designated specifically to repair, preserve and develop rental housing to bolster affordability. Officials with NY Rising called it a substantial investment to fund rental projects.

Adler has gotten about $13,000 from FEMA for damages and rent during the family's three moves and to help replace her ruined car, clothing, furniture and appliances. She is basically tapped out.

"By the time they build and decide where they are going to build is, like, it could be forever," she said. "I need to live somewhere now."

Renters on Long Island with low to moderate incomes were hit hard by Sandy.

Households that earned less than 80 percent of the area's median income occupied about eight of every 10 rental units outside New York City that sustained major to severe damage, according to the latest version of the state's "action plan," which must be approved by HUD for receipt of block grant funds. The document set 80 percent of median annual income for Nassau and Suffolk counties at $67,000.

The majority of renters in the most damaged housing were on Long Island -- 6,249 in Nassau County and 1,340 in Suffolk County, according to the state estimates.

Most of those rentals were in Baldwin, Bellmore, East Atlantic Beach, East Rockaway, Freeport, Inwood, Island Park, Long Beach, Massapequa, Oceanside and Seaford in Nassau, and Amityville, Babylon, Lindenhurst and Mastic Beach in Suffolk, according to the state.

The number of displaced tenants probably is larger than official estimates, partly because many ground-floor and basement apartments didn't have certificates of occupancy, or residents were doubled up but didn't have a legal lease, said a FEMA official involved in relief efforts in the region.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo acknowledged the challenge when previewing the latest allocation of funds for disaster recovery during his State of the State address in January, saying there is "a crisis" in affordable housing and that addressing the issue should be a priority.

Long Beach renter hit hard

Laura Manno, in Long Beach's West End, was one of the many renters in dire straits after Sandy flooded underground and first-floor apartments, tore down walls and blew away roofs.

Manno, 59, a former presentations coordinator for a lower Manhattan financial firm, had spent years recovering from the trauma of experiencing Sept. 11, 2001, and losing her job near Ground Zero. She took jobs in sales, used up her savings, filed for bankruptcy, and was unemployed and looking just before the storm.

Sandy took every object she owned. Seawater went into her first-floor apartment and "twisted everything as if it was a washing machine," splitting her bed diagonally and burying all her clothes and appliances in muddy sand. She saw her car, a 2006 Ford Escape, "spinning in the middle of the ocean," its lights flashing.

She has been drifting since. She stayed at her mother's house in Queens for a time, then took a temporary studio above an abandoned commercial building. Now she is back in Long Beach in a building owned by her previous landlord, renting one room with a bathroom for $1,150 a month.

She will run out of rent aid by the end of April and doesn't know what will happen then.

"I am very nervous and apprehensive," said Manno, who works part time at a thrift shop and is applying for disability because of her post-traumatic stress disorder. "I don't know where I'm heading next, and I really don't want to move in with a relative at my age . . . I have been worried I would end up living in a cardboard box."

The Governor's Office of Storm Recovery has plans to help, though officials acknowledge timeliness is a concern.

Programs will be rolled out "in the coming weeks" to fund repair of damaged rentals and, eventually, construct 3,000 new rental units in suburban communities with the $200 million in federal block grant funds.

Another $7.5 million would fund a Sandy Housing Assistance Relief Program to aid low-income tenants teetering toward homelessness with rent and utility payments, but the state did not disclose when that relief would become available.

"We want to provide affordable housing," said Seth Diamond, the recovery office's director. "We will seek to have geographic balance, obviously, where the need is greatest, but we will also be looking for creative proposals, ones that can serve a particular need in the community," including reaching "populations that are underserved that need affordable housing."

Grants to landlords

Among the first steps will be grants to landlords and homeowners for repairs and improvements to prepare for future storms. The state will give priority to projects that benefit low- and moderate-income people, while requiring landlords of multifamily units to keep a portion of the rentals affordable.

The state expects to accept proposals soon and see repair projects funded "in a matter of months," Diamond said.

V. Elaine Gross, an advocate with the group ERASE Racism that has been calling for affordable housing that is accessible to minority communities, said those plans are "certainly encouraging," but hopes the projects aren't concentrated on neighborhoods where there already is a multifamily glut.

"Are we creating new segregated housing, or are we taking this opportunity to build affordable housing in higher-opportunity areas?" Gross asked.

Despite the state's plans, Chanchal Verma is among the tenants who feel abandoned.

She lives with her husband and 12-year-old son, a special-needs child who can't transfer easily to another school, in Woodcrest Village Park, the Oceanside complex asking tenants to leave by March 31.

For Verma's family, the storm was "a major financial setback" that took about $10,000 out of their savings. Both she and her husband work; because of their income level, they did not qualify for relief beyond three months of rent assistance.

"They basically help you initially and then say you are on your own, but you still have the same issues," said Verma, 35, an insurance claims adjuster. "We are not rich enough to really solve our own issues . . . but we are not poor enough to get help."

Some landlords, who could seek grants to repair property, aren't convinced that government funds will make much of a difference. They have been down the road of being denied government loans, and believe assistance is coming too late for many who couldn't afford repairs earlier.

"Unfortunately, it's coming 18 months removed," said Joseph Iorio, who manages several buildings for his family's Arcadia Management company in Long Beach, including the ones where Laura Manno has bounced from apartment to apartment since the storm.

He estimates his company's storm losses, after insurance, at about a half-million dollars.

'No confidence' in relief aid

Paul Palmieri, of the Coalition of Landlords, Homeowners and Merchants, based in the Village of Babylon, is skeptical about promised relief.

"I have no confidence that much of that money will make it to the small landlords -- maybe a trickle," Palmieri said. "Most landlords have probably tried to fix up their properties or abandoned them by now."

Palmieri added that it's not always the case that landlords have raised rents in storm-ravaged areas. The cost of doing business has gone up, he said, as local governments "just come in and write tickets" for code violations instead of helping landlords recover.

The nonprofit safety net has helped some renters who qualified for assistance.

Catholic Charities, among other organizations, has guided renters to permanent housing, with case managers so far helping scores of tenants in Nassau and Suffolk navigate a variety of programs.

As of Feb. 1, Catholic Charities had helped 162 out of 182 displaced renter households it tracked in Nassau and 23 out of 25 in Suffolk to find and secure rental units, said Mary Bossart, disaster case management coordinator for the agency in Amityville.

"We are definitely continuing to deal with the need as it presents itself," Bossart said.

Lance Westmoreland had been living in the first level of a Lawrence house lacking a roof, electricity and running water for about three months when he got help from the agency.

He had given up on finding a comparable rent of $700 a month.

"I lived in that house for over 20 years and had nowhere to go," said Westmoreland, 53, who worked as a plumber before he was disabled by a stroke.

The agency placed him in senior-citizen housing in Rockville Centre. But he had to send his son and two daughters, ages 11 to 17, to live in Brooklyn with their mother.

It broke his heart to part from them, he said. "The storm just made life worse and harder for me," Westmoreland said. "I couldn't put myself together from this storm because Sandy just came and took everything."

Island Park resident Sue Hecht lost most of her belongings on the day of the storm when a toilet became "like a water fountain" in the basement where she had stored many of her things, bringing up to 7 feet of dirty water into the house.

Hecht, 44, said that renters like her have been treated like "an afterthought" and there has been "no consistent rhyme or reason" in how some were denied financial help.

She received one month of FEMA assistance toward her $1,000 monthly rent, she said, and pegged her losses at about $36,000. She is living in the same house, which she says is plagued by mold, because she can't afford to move.

"It's been rough," said Hecht, an unemployed social worker. "It took me 20-some-odd years as a single person to build up to everything I owned . . . and in one day, it's gone forever."

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