Three Years After Hurricane Sandy: Ethnic Minority Home Owners Claim Bias In NYC’s Build It Back Assistance


Kris Gounden and other home-owners of color — claim they’re still waiting for Build It Back re-imbursement. Photo Nate Adams

Several Black and Latino home-owners whose property were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy say that three years after the disaster they’ve yet to see any money for rebuilding from Build It Back, New York City’s program created to reimburse families after they spent tens of thousands to repair homes.

A spokesperson at Build It Back when told about the allegations of discrimination against home-owners of color in reconstruction assistance, issued a statement showing how funding has reached $32 million but didn’t provide data showing breakdown of resource allocation by ethnicity.

Several home-owners interviewed by The Black Star News — African Americans, Latinos, an an ethnic Indian — say they have filed paper work numerous times only to be repeatedly informed that their application was still missing necessary documentation.

Only one of the home-owners, Kris Gounden, of Howard Beach, would allow his name to be used for this article; the others say that they fear retaliation from Build It Back and denial of reimbursements.

Hurricane Sandy swept through the east coast from October 22 to 31, 2012, with powerful winds and devastatingly high water levels causing massive destruction in its trail. Soon after, the federal government, through FEMA, offered relief to many homeowners whose property suffered serious damages. President Obama toured New Jersey with the state’s governor, Chris Christie in a helicopter and also surveyed the destruction caused to properties on New York City’s coastline.

To help thousands of home-owners rebuild, New York City also launched its own program, Build It Back.

When contacted by The Black Star News in December and told about the complaints by ethnic minority home-owners, Sam Breidbart, spokesperson at the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations said Kris Gounden’s application was still missing some documentation.

Breidbart also issued the following statement: “Build it Back is committed to serving all Sandy-affected homeowners, landlords, renters, or tenants who have applied to our program and qualify according to city and federal guidelines.  Eligibility for relief is based on federal rules and regulations, and determined by Build it Back’s assessment of storm damage to a property and a calculation of benefits a homeowner has already received. Any applicant must also submit proof that they own the damaged property and maintained residence there when the storm hit.

Under the New York City Human Rights Law, Program applicants cannot be denied housing because of the applicant’s actual or perceived race, creed, color national origin, age, disability, gender (including gender identity and sexual harassment), sexual orientation, marital status, partnership status, alienage or citizenship status, lawful occupation, lawful source of income, or because children may be residing with the applicant.

We are pledged to the letter and spirit of U.S. policy for the achievement of equal housing opportunity throughout the nation. We encourage and support an affirmative advertising and marketing program in which there are no barriers to obtaining housing because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familiar status, or national origin.

Mayor de Blasio’s sweeping changes to streamline Build it Back and expedite relief to homeowners have helped families all across the city.

As a result: Over 7,100 (over half) of applicants have been made an offer – compared to only 451 earlier this year. Nearly 4,800 have now accepted an offer – compared to 0 earlier this year.

Over 1,700 have now started design – compared to 0 earlier this year. Nearly 900 have moved into construction and another 1,825 have received reimbursement checks – both compared to 0 earlier this year.”

Breidbart in an e-mail message said the reimbursement checks as of December 5, 2014 totaled $32 million. When asked to provide data showing a breakdown by ethnicity of families that have received reimbursement checks Breidbart said The Black Star News would have to file a Freedom of Information Letter (FOIL) request for the statistics.

“I’m just being sent around in circles,” says Gounden, who claims he’s thousands of dollars in rebuilding after the authorities threatened to have his property demolished due to structural damages suffered from Hurricane Sandy. “I have completed the application process several times. I’m still waiting to be re-imbursed for repairs I did,” he says.

Gounden says after the storm he and his wife and two young children then ages five and six initially drove off to stay with his parents in Florida. Gounden and his family then returned to New York after two days and stayed with an aunt in Queens. When conditions improved the Gounden family returned to the property.

Even when he was still assessing the damage, one day several officers from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) swarmed on his water-front property, including three agents who sailed in on a motor boat to tell him his property was on a list of buildings for planned demolition due to the storm damages, Gounden says. Con Edison agents also came to his property and also told him his house would have to be demolished because the storm had caused a structural imbalance, he says.

The DEC officers, all of whom were armed, said they had been “informed” of the structural damages to the house, he says. “Tell me this isn’t a set up? Why would the DEC and Con Edison choose my property for planned demolition, in the middle of this crises everyone was facing? Everyone was pleading for help,” Gounden sas. “I think I know the politician who sent them.”

Gounden’s family, ethnic Guyanese immigrants, was the victim of an alleged racist assault from a neighbor who was later arrested but never indicted, when they first moved to Howard Beach in 2006. The incident was widely covered by the city’s media, including by The Daily News, WABC Channel 7 and other outlets. At the time of the incident, then City Councilmember Joseph Addabo Jr., said Gounden had exaggerated the alleged racist attacks.

The Daily News reported at the time that when Gounden’s dispute with his neighbor started, he  received an unusually high number of violations written up on his property. Gounden has alleged that the pattern of high volumes of alleged violations — he calls them “bogus” — later affected even his rental properties eventually saddling him with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Neighbors also started calling the police on the Gounden family complaining of “noise”. A verbal confrontation with one neighbor even led to Gounden’s arrest and prosecution by the Queens county D.A. Richard Brown even though Gounden provided a video recording showing that the neighbor had initiated the incident. A judge later dismissed the charges.

Now even with the delay in his application for funding for Hurricane Sandy repairs, Gounden claims he sees a pattern of behavior similar to his previous travails. “I am being denied even Build It Back relief money to repair damages on my property,” Gounden says. “Do you really believe this could be a random coincidence?”

Separately, an African American female who claims her family too has been “given the runaround” says she’s given up on the program. “Maybe that’s what they want us to do,” she says. “I’m tired of being jerked around.”

Additionally, a Latino male head of a household whose property is also near Howard Beach claims he too has been waiting for reimbursement since 2013. “Many people have received relief money but they don’t look like me,” the man said, rubbing the back of his left hand with his right forefinger.

He asked that his name not be used in the article for fear that he would never get any money from Build It Back.

Most of the water front properties on Howard Beach are built atop pilings placed on top of sills. The devastation from Sandy caused the sills to shift, moving the pilings and the buildings, compromising the stability of the homes and also potentially disrupting gas pipes and electricity wirings.

Gounden, the Guyanese immigrant, says he recently received a form letter which threatens to remove his applicantion from consideration within 30 days unless he contacted the Build It Back office. “I’ve received that letter at least four times. The most recent one was dated February 9, 2015,” he says.

A copy of the unsigned form letter was reviewed by The Black Star News.

Gounden says after the warnings from the DEC and Con Edison that his property would be demolished, he hired a licensed contractor for repairs. “The whole house was reframed, one section at a time, with steel beams reinforcement in some parts” Gounden says. “New gas pipes were put in.”

The work invoice from Upper Level Contracting totals $128,000. It shows that $86,542 worth of repairs and rebuilding had been performed as of March 3, 2014; only $61,347 had been paid for by that time. “I still owe the contractor money,” Gounden says.

Work listed by Upper Level Contracting includes: cleaning and removing debris; removing water, sewage and mold; replacing the floors on the first, second and third floors; replacing the plywood for the interior; framing; exterior clapboard; replacing all windows and doors; and partial repairs on damaged roof.

Gounden says one of the DEC environmental conservation officers who had earlier raided his home, named Shea Matthis, later returned a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy and wrote him up on a violation for allegedly building a deck without a DEC permit. “Everyone repaired their dock after the Sandy damages. He comes and writes me up on criminal charges,” Gounden says.

Gounden claims Matthis visited his home “at least a dozen times” over a period of several weeks. “Each time he said he was responding to a call about suspicious work activity going on along the water front. He said he was not allowed to tell me who was making the calls,” he says.

The Queens County D.A. also prosecuted Gounden on that case. “I don’t know what the status of that case is at the moment. I haven’t had a court date in many, many months. But I know it hasn’t been resolved either.”

When The Black Star News reached him by telephone, Matthis said “I can’t comment on cases.” He wouldn’t say why Gounden’s home was targeted or who had put in a call with a complaint.

Gounden claims the DEC has been used to harras him for years.

When Gounden first bought his property in 2006, a similar raid was conducted on August 6 of that year by DEC officers who also wrote him three criminal court summonses, including for alleged conducting “regulated activity in tidal wetlands without permit”. That incident was discussed in a column in the October 19-25, 2007 issue of Caribbean New Yorker.

He believes his Build It Back application process had now also been hijacked by vindictive politics.

Gounden’s trail of documents shows that he first registered for the NYC Build It Back program for his family’s property on 1 Bay View Avenue, on Howard Beach, on September 20, 2013 under the Bloomberg Administration, when Brad Gair was the director of Housing Recovery Operations.

He had filled application documents, such as certificate of no conflict of interest and the notice and acknowledgment of limited availability of funding on September 28, 2013. His given application number was App020769.

He said he had several back-and-forth discussion with various officials at the Build It Back program over several months.

On December 4, 2014, Gounden received an e-mail message from Jean Chandrasegar, who identified herself as his case manager. She asked for additional documentation, including: income self-certification form for occupant-owners; 2012-1040 tax return; proof of citizenship; proof of primary residence; and, proof of storm damage.

Gounden wrote back to Chandrasegar on December 9, 2014. He said he had previously hand delivered the documentation to a designated Build It Back office located on 415 State Road, in Breezy Point. He wrote that he was attaching the information.

On December 17, Gounden received an e-mail message from Matthew Byrnes, who identified himself as the manager of the case management team for Build It Back’s programs in Queens.

Byrnes asked for the same information Chandrasegar had requested, including proof of citizenship or qualified immigrant status and the first two pages of Gounden’s 2012-1040 tax forms. Gounden says he sent Byrnes documentation on December 31, 2014, including: his certificate of naturalization; property tax bill for October 1, 2012; an aviation mechanic’s ID from the Federal Aviation Administration; a water bill; a Con Edison bill; and the two pages of the 2012-1040 forms.

On January 7, 2015 Gounden received an e-mail message from John M. Johnston, from State Senator Joseph Addabbo’s office. Gounden says when he first had contacted Johnston, he had hung up on him.

Johnston’s January e-mail message in part reads: “Hi, Just following up on your BIB Application. If you have any questions you can e-mail me or call me between 9 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday…”

Gounden says he has since left Johnston several messages with no response and that e-mail messages he sends bounces back to him.

Johnston didn’t respond to an e-mail message sent to him by The Black Star News inquiring what role he was playing in Gounden’s Build It Back application process.

Similarly, Byrnes also didn’t respond to an e-mail message inquiring whether it was he or Johnston, in Addabbo’s office, who was handling Gounden’s application.

Breidbart, spokesperson at the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations when told of the e-mail message from Johnston, the February 9 unsigned letter, and asked who was handling Gounden’s application, in an e-mail message response wrote that he is looking into the case and will get back.


Editor’s Note:  If any reader thinks that she or he has also been unfairly denied reimbursement check from Build It Back please get in touch with us via [email protected]

Speaking Truth To Power


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *