Amid an outcry for the state to extend the deadlines for Hurricane Sandy victims seeking storm recovery funds to elevate their houses to protect them against future storms, New York Rising — the program assisting storm victims with financial aid — announced that the deadlines would be extended to Jan. 1, 2019.
NY Rising announced the move hours after a news conference on May 18 at which South Shore residents and elected officials protested the deadlines — homeowners said they feared they would be forced out of the program — and called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to extend them. Many residents said they were unable to lift their homes in time because they were defrauded by contractors.
Previously, homeowners who chose, but were not required, to raise their houses would have had to show progress in the elevation work by June 1, while those facing mandatory elevation had to show progress by Sept. 1.
“Through no fault of their own, hundreds of storm victims are still not back to normal nearly six years after Superstorm Sandy,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, who was among the officials who called for the extension. “This deadline extension will allow victims of contractor fraud and stuck in red tape to have the necessary time to comply with the program’s mandates.”
Nassau County Legislator Steve Rhoads, a Republican from Seaford who organized the news conference, said that many homeowners were behind schedule as a result of circumstances beyond their control, and that the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery — which oversees NY Rising — should address the underlying reason why residents are having difficulty meeting the deadlines.
A spokeswoman for GOSR said the office “has already extended the deadline for certain homeowners who have filed contractor fraud claims, and is now expanding that opportunity to accommodate those facing difficulties that are delaying the work.”
West End resident Terri Dunbar is among a number of South Shore residents who remain displaced while their homes are being rebuilt or elevated, and claim they have paid contractors while the work remains unfinished.
Dunbar, who received funding from NY Rising, hired Fred Gutterman, of JBJ General Contracting, in 2016, only to have him abandon the work before it was completed, she said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency declared her home substantially damaged, requiring her to elevate it. Dunbar said she paid Gutterman in installments according to a contract she signed with him, and he worked on raising her home for about three months.
“Fast-forward to March 2018: I paid him a total of $130,000 and he walked off,” Dunbar said. “His work was totally shoddy. My cement is cracked; my beams are crooked.”
Gutterman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Dunbar said she has been displaced from her home for three years — she moved four times to rentals in Long Beach and Bayville. Now, she said, she is out of money and struggling to find a legitimate contractor to finish the work.
More than four dozen residents of Long Beach and surrounding communities filed complaints with the Nassau County Office of Consumer Affairs against JBJ General Contracting. Consumer Affairs has received 49 complaints — four in 2017 and 45 in 2018 — according to the county’s website. In at least 31 cases, homeowners claim that Gutterman either did not complete the elevation work or didn’t begin.
Consumer Affairs officials said that Gutterman is unlicensed and “cannot legally operate in Nassau County.”
“We are reviewing complaints regarding this contractor,” said Miriam Sholder, a spokeswoman for Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas. “The district attorney takes allegations of contractor fraud very seriously, and each allegation is investigated thoroughly.”
West End resident Liz Treston is among the dozens of people who said they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in NY Rising and personal funds to “unscrupulous” contractors. After she opted to elevate her Sandy-damaged home through the state program, Treston lived in three different rentals and faced years of challenges to find a contractor who would rebuild and elevate her wheelchair-accessible home for the allowable amount of award money.
After she hired Gutterman in 2016, Treston said, he took almost $200,000 in NY Rising funds and her own money and abandoned the project, leaving the house unfinished and uninhabitable.
Many residents said they saw Gutterman on a list of contractors provided by NY Rising, but that he was later removed from the list. Some referred to him as a “con artist.”
“We found out that NY Rising put contractors on their website who were never licensed in Nassau County, so they should never have been on it,” County Legislator Denise Ford said at a contractor fraud forum in Island Park on April 30.
At a news conference on May 14, Ford and County Executive Laura Curran urged residents to file complaints with Consumer Affairs if they experienced fraud by Sandy contractors, and said they were pushing for new legislation that would strengthen protections for fraud victims.
Ford has been meeting with residents for months to hear their individual stories. She referred to the contractors as “serial scammers.”
Greg May, the county’s consumer affairs commissioner, said on May 14 that the office had received more than 185 complaints related to Sandy contractors. According to a GOSR spokeswoman, the office is aware of the complaints against Gutterman, and an investigator will review hardship applications.
County officials encouraged residents to file complaints with the district attorney after they have done so with Consumer Affairs.
“It’s up to the D.A. then to try to prove that it’s going to be a criminal, not a civil, matter, which is little comfort to the residents who are out of their money and are not getting the necessary repairs,” Ford said on May 14. She also urged residents to file hardship claims with the state program.
Eden Laikin and Nadya Nataly contributed to this story.