With hotel occupancy rates high and apartment vacancy rates low, federal, state and local officials have teamed up to bring a first-of-its-kind emergency housing program to post-Sandy Long Island.
Contractors will be paid to perform "quick fix" repairs so residents can live in their storm-damaged homes during longer-term renovations.
The new Federal Emergency Management Agency program is partly a recognition by officials that mobile homes and rental properties aren't a viable solution to the housing crunch in the metropolitan area.
"FEMA has put together a program that is really a first in this country," said Jerry Hauer, commissioner of New York's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. "This takes the homes that are marginally inhabitable and makes them habitable so people get back into their homes."
Officials announced the program Wednesday afternoon at Nassau County's Office of Emergency Management in Bethpage. County Executive Edward Mangano and Suffolk Deputy County Executive Regina Calcaterra were in attendance.
There are no reliable estimates of how many homes could be eligible for the assistance.
The federal government will pick up the bulk of the tab for the program -- called Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power, or STEP -- with counties and local municipalities shouldering the rest, officials said.
Examples of the work include patching windows or exterior doors, covering damaged roofs with tarps and doing minor electrical work necessary for inspections before a house can be deemed habitable, officials said.
Homeowners can then pursue major repairs with FEMA's traditional Individual Assistance program. Any cash benefit received from STEP won't count against that federal assistance, officials said.
"It will allow them the ability to get into their home while they do the rest of their repairs and be safe, be warm and be able to bring their family back together," said FEMA coordinating officer Mike Byrne.
People can register immediately for the program by calling FEMA's assistance number: 800-621-3362.
What FEMA officials have learned since Sandy bashed Long Island is that the region has a particular set of housing issues that makes it unique, Byrne said.
The traditional disaster zone strategy of bringing in temporary housing units, as done after Katrina, wouldn't work here, Byrne said. "There's no place to put them."
Providing rental assistance for apartments was also problematic, with the local vacancy rate at less than 5 percent, he said.
Hotels and motels as stopgap measures are no solution either, he said, because the holiday season is approaching and "everyone wants to come here and the hotels are full."
The approach of winter cold was another factor driving FEMA's decision to find an untried remedy.
"This is a must-do thing," Byrne said. "Lives are at stake. The welfare of the people whose homes were damaged is in jeopardy."
As officials scrambled to address the housing crisis, they admitted being perplexed by an "underrepresentation" of New York State residents seeking FEMA assistance. An estimated 190,000 families have applied for FEMA assistance, low for a metropolitan area with 15 million people, Byrne said.
"I don't think we have anywhere close to the number of people that should apply applying," he said. "Something's not connecting in terms of people that need assistance."
Mangano called the number of flood-damaged homes that can't be lived in "countless," and said FEMA's new program is tailored to meet the needs of storm victims.
"Clearly, we have an alarming number of residents that are sheltering in places without the proper health and safety repairs in place," he said.