Long Beach City Hall hosted a spectrum of experts and officials at an Aug. 8 information seminar discussing ways for recovering Sandy victims to protect themselves against common pitfalls in the complicated, and at times, risky process of getting one’s home elevated and protected against future flooding.
The small lineup of architectural, building inspection, consumer protection, insurance and law enforcement representatives organized by Nassau County Storm Recovery Liaison Michael Raab spoke to a group of roughly 50 Long Beach and Oceanside residents. The officials — including Long Beach Building Commissioner Scott Kemins — offered frank advice on how to steer clear of construction and design contractor fraud, as well as how to avoid mistakes in the process of filing for, and using New York Rising reward grant funds intended to allow homeowners to get their homes raised.
Asking the architect
The theme of the seminar, “you can’t build a plane while it is flying,” was evident throughout architect Brian Baer of the Elevated Studio’s nearly hour-long presentation. He insisted that homeowners look long and hard for a qualified and licensed architect once they have opted-in to have their house elevated.
Have two separate contracts, Baer suggested — one for an architect and another for a construction contractor — and read them closely. “Don’t take one-page contracts,” he added, and explained that a homeowner’s contract with their architect should outline the full scope of their responsibilities, which is to design the reconstruction to both the homeowner’s and building code specifications, estimate the cost of the work, oversee construction and act as a liaison between the homeowner and New York Rising.
Ask many questions of the architect before construction begins, Baer said, reiterating the theme of the seminar. “Don’t ask after construction’s started,” he said. “It will cost money and stress.”
In terms of managing finances, Baer implored homeowners to not spend their New York Rising grant reward on anything other than reconstruction. He also suggested they set payment milestones with their contractors once certain projects are completed to ensure no corners are cut and no funds go wasted.
But time is running out, Baer warned, once a homeowner’s architect has submitted their 6100 form to New York Rising — the document determining the amount of grant funds they are eligible for — it can take up to nine months for it to be approved, and if the scope of work changes, the form can only be resubmitted once after a home has been raised. Additionally, deadlines for elevation are rapidly approaching, as homes need to be off the ground by Sept. 1 in order to be eligible for New York Rising assistance.
“Make no bones about it,” Baer said of New York Rising, which he said is looking to complete its claims as soon as possible. “This program is looking to close itself down.”
Protecting against contractor fraud
The first step any homeowner should take before hiring a construction contractor, according to county Office of Consumer Affairs community representative Kenneth Heino, is to check if they are licensed.
“We want to be making sure everyone is licensed,” he said. “And then we want to make sure they’re licensed for what.” Heino directed residents toward his office’s website, where there is a listing of every licensed contractor in Nassau County, and suggested they then follow up with a phone call to ensure the contractor is licensed for disaster recovery.
If a resident knowingly hires an unlicensed contractor, the resulting theft “is a crime, but it could have been easily avoided,” Marshall Trager of the Nassau County District Attorney said, representing law enforcement at the seminar.
“We are the last line of defense,” he said, but admitted his office is limited in what the law allows it to do. A criminal case, he said, can only be brought against a contractor if theft has been proven, and he said that even then, it is unlikely that much or any stolen money would be returned.
Keeping his advice brief, Brian Bergman, owner of DCAP Insurance in Long Beach and president of the Long Beach-based insurance firm Meyerson-Roth Co., had one suggestion for homeowners: obtain a flood insurance elevation certificate through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “FEMA wants to get these numbers,” he said of the home’s elevation information. “And it helps with insurance too.”
The certificate form, which can be obtained on FEMA’s website, provides both FEMA and insurance companies an accurate assessment of a property’s risk of flooding, and allows for more precise figure of a home’s flood insurance rates.
After the seminar, residents had an opportunity to speak with the experts to express their grievances and troubles, and ask what they can do going forward.
“I didn’t get the proper amount of money I should’ve gotten,” Long Beach resident Maureen Aquila said. “I got a very low reward [from New York Rising] and I’m trying to get more money and a new 6100 drawn up because my plans are not what they should be.”
“The priorities changed because now people are further along and they’re getting ripped off by their contractor,” Kemins said. “People just want to get done already. And it’s hard on our end. We never had this amount of work before, and our staff hasn’t gotten any bigger.”
Despite the intricacies and risks involved with the process, Baer said that with a plan and diligence homeowners would be able to recover. Before ending his portion of the seminar he pleaded to the residents “Don’t give up hope.”