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LI officials hunt for housing amid shortage

Marybeth Halinski photographed in what was her Oakdale

Marybeth Halinski photographed in what was her Oakdale home, which was completely flooded after superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 11, 2012) Credit: Steven Sunshine

Thousands of Long Islanders have housing assistance money in their pockets but no place to go because hotels and motels are jammed and county officials haven't decided which temporary housing options to pursue.

Two weeks after Sandy ravaged the region, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials say they're awaiting requests for housing from local government.

Options for Nassau and Suffolk include placing mobile homes on storm-scarred properties, creating large temporary communities and moving families into foreclosed properties.

"There is certainly going to be an immediate need for temporary housing," said Nassau Health Commissioner Lawrence Eisenstein, who heads the county's Recovery Housing Task Force. "We have many options on the table. We've got to see what's feasible."

Besides hotels, motels and hospitals -- all of which are full -- unused space in nursing homes, unoccupied and undamaged homes, military bases and college campuses will be considered, Eisenstein said. Even cabins at a Baiting Hollow Boy Scout camp are under consideration.

Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday that securing long-term housing for people displaced by the storm is the federal government's most pressing issue.

"The number one issue is housing . . . finding housing for people, hopefully in an area in the community so kids can keep going to the same school," she said at a news conference on Staten Island.

"We receive 6,000 phone calls a day from people looking for a place to stay," said Marc Soblick, 32, general manager of the Best Western Woodbury Inn, one of the FEMA temporary housing sites. "Demand is so high. There's just no availability."

Suffolk director of real estate Jill Rosen-Nikoloff said the county reached an agreement late last week with the Long Island Housing Partnership and federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to use rehabilitated foreclosed homes. Eighteen homes had been identified by Saturday, she said.

"We're on the hunt for hotels, apartments, spare housing stock, FEMA trailers -- whatever we need," Rosen-Nikoloff said.

FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said hundreds of mobile homes were being moved into the region for possible use in New York and New Jersey. The agency wouldn't say how many temporary houses might be needed on Long Island.

"Discussions are going on with FEMA about transitional housing units, the numbers that might be needed and, if those units are brought into Suffolk County, where they might be set up," Rosen-Nikoloff said.

County and FEMA officials are determining whether it's possible to set up mobile homes on properties where houses were damaged so homeowners can be present while repairs are made.

That option -- used in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina -- has its limits. Each site must be evaluated by FEMA, and a property in a flood zone may be rejected, Rosen-Nikoloff said. The mobile units must comply with local building codes and have sewer, water and electric hookups.

Assemb. Al Graf (R-Holbrook), who favors that option, said he asked County Executive Steve Bellone to explore the possibility.

Flood victims hoping to replace a friend's or relative's sofa with a FEMA-approved hotel room are finding few available near their homes.

Mary Halinski, 43, of Oakdale, said she'd rather stay in a cramped room with her husband and three children at a relative's home than in a hotel near Kennedy Airport in Queens -- the closest vacancy she could find last week.

"This is where I live," Halinski said of her Cedar Place home. "This is where my children are supposed to go to school."

The website -- -- allows disaster victims to search by state for hotels that have agreed to set aside a block of rooms to assist with disaster relief. The website listed a half-dozen or so hotels in Nassau and Suffolk. Other choices are as far as Schenectady or Albany.

"Anybody I've spoken with -- nobody is staying at a FEMA-approved housing," she said.

Halinski said she and her husband are going to use the $4,116 in assistance received from FEMA to pay rent for an apartment -- as soon as they find one.

"They pay the first two months and then you have to resubmit for more months," she said. "They don't pay security deposit. I would be responsible for going around and negotiating the best price possible."

FEMA spokesman William Rukeyser said a scarcity of hotel rooms is common after disasters.

"This is a familiar, sad story we hear from disaster survivors all over the country," he said. "People have to make very tough decisions: Do I stay in really primitive conditions to stay near home, or do I opt for more comfort and lack the ability to be near my home every day, or near my neighbors?"

Vin-Ann Klein, of Lindenhurst, has stayed with her son in Merrick since she and her husband waded through floodwater to flee their home when Sandy struck. She received a two-month housing allowance of $3,100 from FEMA but can't find a place to stay.

"Every hotel I called within a 10-mile radius is full," she said. "They have no rooms and they won't have rooms for a month. I thought long before now that this would be resolved."

After Felicia and Ian Jones' home in West Islip flooded, they checked FEMA's list and found the closest hotel was in Westbury. With both working full time and a child in a local school, that wasn't feasible.

"We have no choice but to stay locally with relatives for now," Felicia Jones said. "We're hoping FEMA will provide a trailer or a mobile home on our property because we need to stay in this area, so the kids can have normalcy, and we can overview repairs to our home."

With Nicole Fuller

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