NEW YORK --An often-criticized initiative to rebuild Superstorm Sandy-damaged homes has started work on more than 130, finished 30 and dispensed more than $6.3 million to reimburse homeowners for reconstruction costs, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday.
While the 132 homes underway represent just over a quarter of the goal the city has vowed to reach within six weeks, de Blasio said the pace was accelerating, and the city was on track to keep its promise of starting work on 500 homes and sending out 500 reimbursement checks by Labor Day. Nearly 400 checks have been sent.
"We are absolutely confident that we will meet that goal," de Blasio said.
De Blasio set it three months ago, amid widespread frustration with the program, which former Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in June 2013. The city had previously installed boilers, replaced electrical panels and done other basic work on 20,000 houses and apartments under a program called Rapid Repairs; Build It Back was intended to address more complicated damage to another roughly 20,000 homes.
As of mid-April, only nine homes were undergoing work. None had been finished.
The city has since made some changes to speed the process, including eliminating income categories that had prevented some applications from moving forward while others were pending.
Tonyelle Jobity, who manages a state-run group home for the mentally disabled, had maxed out her credit cards and emptied her savings account doing what repairs she could to her Brooklyn home after Sandy flooded its basement, de Blasio said. She applied soon after the October 2012 storm for city help, but it came only amid the city's recent Build It Back push.
On Thursday, seven workers fastened plywood to a leaking part of Jobity's roof, pausing as de Blasio spoke outside. The city also has reimbursed Jobity for what she spent, de Blasio said.
"She was just ready to give up hope," said her sister, Cynthia Johnson. "Then this comes along. So it's a blessing."
Some 2,500 homeowners have now OK'd a repair plan - 1,500 of them in the past three months - and about 650 of those projects are in the design phase, said Amy Peterson, the head of Build It Back.
Still, the city expects at least 15,000 homes need work done - some of it as substantial as elevating homes to protect against future flooding - and about 750 houses need to be rebuilt completely, Peterson said.
Still, some storm victims' advocates who had previously lamented the program's pace credited the city with picking it up.
"We are encouraged by the real progress the de Blasio administration is making on Sandy rebuilding," said Susannah Dyen, coordinator of the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, a citywide group that released a report criticizing Build It Back in January. But "considerable work still needs to be done."