May 06

Staten Island homeowners in limbo

May 03, 2013 10:29 am

Staten Island resident Joseph Tirone brought the idea of a buyout group to his neighbors. Photo credit: Buck Ennis

A few weeks ago, in the Oakwood Beach section of Staten Island, it looked almost as though some sort of neighborhood reunion was taking place. Former residents milled about and chatted amicably in what remained of the seaside community where Superstorm Sandy left three dead, scores of properties either destroyed or badly damaged, and many people still homeless.

“Most of us are like wandering gypsies,” said Joe Szczesny, a 63-year-old MTA Bridges and Tunnels employee. “We’re wandering around in Sandy time, while everyone else is in normal time.”

What drew Mr. Szczesny and others that cloudy afternoon was the hope of taking an important step toward putting their lives back together and rejoining the rest of the world. They gathered to await appraisers sent out to assay their properties in preparation for their purchase by New York state. In his State of the State speech in January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that “there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns”—areas where it made more sense not to rebuild but to pay owners the full original value for their properties and allow them to move on.

In Oakwood Beach, owners of nearly 170 of the 184 properties have applied to join the program. More than six months after Sandy hit, however, it is increasingly apparent that in the state as a whole, they are in a distinct minority. Albany officials estimate that of the 10,000 homes in the state severely damaged by the storm, the owners of only 10% to 15% of those eligible for a buyout will go that route. Instead, the vast majority of people are leaning toward rebuilding.

Until the size of expected insurance-rate hikes is known, and federal officials release the final update of flood-zone maps, making the sell-or-stay call will be difficult. Further muddying the waters are differing objectives from the city and state governments, with the former focusing on rebuilding and the latter pushing buyouts, said Joseph Pupello, head of Zone A New York, a group of housing and environmental experts monitoring rehabilitation efforts.

“It’s difficult for homeowners to make decisions,” he said.

A spokesman for the governor notes that the state has several options for homeowners, including not just the buyout, but also storm-mitigation grants designed to “allow people to build back their homes smarter and stronger to protect against another similar weather disaster.” At this point, the one thing that’s clear is that no matter what people decide to do, getting their lives back together will take time, as Oakwood Beach residents have already discovered.

“The process has just started,” said Jerry, a 54-year-old retiree who declined to give his last name. “But to see it getting to this point already is good.” Much of the credit for that has to go the residents themselves, who two weeks after Sandy struck banded together to form the Oakwood Beach Buyout Committee. In one of its first acts, the group began lobbying local, city and state officials to pick the neighborhood to be part of a pilot program to return the land to its natural condition.

The eight-person committee met weekly until Mr. Cuomo announced in March that he would seek federal approval for the state’s storm recovery plan, which included Oakwood Beach as a testing ground for the buyout. At the same time, the committee hosted monthly meetings to keep other landowners up to speed on developments.

“If it wasn’t for [the committee], I wouldn’t have a clue what to do,” said Trisha Breslin, a 48-year-old city Department of Education employee whose one-floor home was gutted.

Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who represents the east shore of Staten Island, called the Oakwood Beach committee a model for other residents affected by Sandy.

“They advocated, they were very organized, they came to the elected officials,” she said. “It sets a good example for other communities.” Joseph Tirone, a 55-year-old Staten Islander who owns properties in Oakwood Beach that he rented out, was one of those who helped launch the committee. Subsequently, he has become a point man and a sounding board for local homeowners. During the appraisals last month, he was unable to walk through the neighborhood without residents stopping him with a barrage of questions from the sidewalk, their doorsteps or through their car windows as they drove through.

Mr. Tirone got the idea for the buyout from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Agency personnel told him about a FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program that had been used in Tennessee and in upstate New York’s Essex County following disasters in both places in recent years. Two weeks after Sandy, Mr. Tirone brought the idea of a buyout to a group of about 200 homeowners at a meeting at St. Charles Church on Penn Avenue. When he asked for a show of hands of those interested in such a program, the response was nearly unanimous. “I was not ready for that answer,” Mr. Tirone admitted.

What helped was Oakwood Beach’s history. Over nearly a century, the area has endured a series of natural disasters, from repeated floods to brushfires in the tall grass in the nearby wetlands. In the wake of the latest calamity, some of the area’s original inhabitants—flocks of geese and a handful of deer—have already reappeared. The death and destruction caused by Sandy have persuaded many residents to take Albany’s cash and move on.

Today, many of the dwellings in the buyout area are abandoned and in complete disrepair. Owners of a few others have decided to spend thousands on modest furnishings to make their homes livable while they wait for the buyout.

Cynthia Scarsella, a 48-year-old drug-rehabilitation therapist, has spent $72,000—$12,000 of which was paid out of pocket—repairing the home she bought in 2007 for $285,000. She still wants to move on, but not at any price.

“I am not willing to give my house away for peanuts,” she said.

Most property owners are expecting to get pre-storm value for their homes, with bonuses for property in targeted areas. The average home can go for about $400,000.

For some, however, it’s not time to go. Frank Lettieri, a 63-year-old licensed practical nurse, who early on attended two buyout committee meetings, said he was unpersuaded to give up his family home of 26 years, especially because he figures the next big storm is likely many years away. “I have a nice piece of New York City here,” he said. “If they give us $1 million, I don’t want it.”