Dina Viogt, 45, lost her house in Babylon, Long Island during Superstorm Sandy last year. But now, one year later, she feels even more hopeless than when the storm hit.
“We have been doing nothing but fighting for the past year,” said Viogt, who has been striving to get money from her insurance company and the government to rebuild her house. Even when she received an award letter from NY Rising Recovery program, she would discover the fighting would continue.
The federally funded program established to provide grants for homeowners affected by the storm, began releasing award letters to homeowners this month. But most Long Island applicants soon realized that the award letter would never turn into a real check.
Viogt applied for the recovery program in May, right after it was launched. She said she desperately needs the grant to pay a disaster loan of $220,100 from the Small Business Administration (SBA), which provides low-interest loans for repairing and replacing real estate and personal property damaged by Sandy.
In mid-October, Viogt felt excited and relieved when she found out that her family of four would get a grant of $205,388.04. But when she read the letter more closely, she discovered a note under the award calculation that stated: “if were offered an SBA loan… your overall reward will be reduced by that amount.”
For Viogt, it meant that she would receive nothing.
The only reason Viogt applied for the SBA loan is because she was told it was a prerequisite for other government grants. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), “the SBA loan application is necessary for most homeowners and renters to be considered for all forms of disaster assistance.” Technically, approved or not, applying for SBA is supposed to make storm victims eligible for government grants in the future.
“It is not fair! I just need NY Rising to give me money to help me pay down this debt. But, you know those who were not approved by SBA, they can get the grant, with full amount,” said Viogt, claiming that the policy does not help those who need money most. “We did the right thing but we are getting screwed!”
Another homeowner, Kelly Harris of Massapequa, whose house took on 3 feet of water during the storm, felt lucky that the awarded amount of $220,100 would not be deducted because she was not approved for a loan from SBA.
However, Harris still feels this policy is very unfair. “FEMA told everyone that they had to apply for an SBA loan. And now the people that took the loan will be penalized from NY Rising.”
According to Viogt’s award letter, the subtraction of the loan is to prevent the Duplication of Benefits under the federal Stafford Act that requires “no person, business concern or other entity will receive duplicative assistance.”
Many homeowners argue, however, that the SBA loan and NY Rising grant are two different benefits.
“It is outrageous. I don’t know how the loan became a benefit,” said Michele Insinga, Vice President of Adopt A House, a non-profit organization founded to bring information and solutions to people affected on Long Island, about the catch-22.
At an Oct. 25 press conference in Babylon, State Senator Phil Boyle, who is working on this issue, called for federal authorities to ease restrictions. “The person who did not take the loan gets a check. The person who took out a loan still has the debt. This is a serious problem and is going to cost tens of thousands, and in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars to New York State homeowners,” said Boyle.
Adopt A House, which had representatives at the press conference, is urging residents who have already taken the SBA loan to contact Boyle’s office or local politicians to push for a change.
Insinga argued that towns and counties, which are supposed to be the bridge between residents and the state, have been indifferent to residents’ outrage and complaints.
“We do feel at some point it is the responsibility of a town to send out the information,” said Insingna, who called some officials of local towns and counties to remind them to bring more information about grants and loans to local communities. Local officials, however, beleive it is the state’s responsibility.
“You are the town that these people live in,” Insingna said. “Affected families are not in communication with the state. You are, as a town, collecting the taxes, therefore it is your responsibility.”
Even though Harris will be awarded a promising amount of money from NY Rising, she said she would remain cautious until she receives the check. “After everything I have been through, I will believe it when I see the money,” she said. “Things keep changing every day with NY Rising. It’s hard to be optimistic when it seems like they keep changing things.”
Earlier this year, before NY Rising was launched, Harris went through all the paperwork for SBA and was said to be eligible for a loan. But in reality, she got nothing. She said she would up with nothing for rebuilding and her house was still a wreck.
“Sandy has become a full-time job in addition to my full time job in downtown New York City and being a mom and wife… It has been a very difficult year for my entire family,” said Harris, who has just begun rebuilding her house one year after Sandy.
For the Viogt family, and others who received SBA loans, the process of recovery may still be a long way yet.