Freeport family struggles to stay in NY Rising

Deputy Village Attorney Robert McLaughlin, left, and Mayor Robert Kennedy answered homeowners’ questions about construction and elevation projects in the village on April 25.
Deputy Village Attorney Robert McLaughlin, left, and Mayor Robert Kennedy answered homeowners’ questions about construction and elevation projects in the village on April 25.
Nadya Nataly/Herald

Angry Freeporters filled the benches at Village Hall on April 25. Twenty-seven families came to speak about the same person: the contractor who they said they hired to elevate and rebuild their Hurricane Sandy-damaged homes, but who has repeatedly stalled their projects — for more than a year in some cases — costing them tens of thousands of dollars. As a result, some say, they might now lose their homes.

Frustrated, homeowners turned to the village for support. Mayor Robert Kennedy said he first heard of their troubles during the weekly Tuesday-afternoon sessions when he invites residents to meet with him in his office. Kennedy decided to host a meeting to bring all of the homeowners together to address their construction issues.

According to Deputy Village Attorney Robert McLaughlin, Freeport has filed a criminal complaint against Fred Gutterman and his construction company, JBJ General Contracting, for allegedly filing a false document with the village. McLaughlin also said that the contractor filed a different company’s insurance information with the village.

The Nassau County Department of Consumer Affairs has received 38 complaints — four in 2017 and 34 in 2018 — against JBJ General Contracting. McLaughlin encouraged homeowners to rally together to hire an attorney to pursue a class-action lawsuit against the contractor, and file complaints with the district attorney’s office, the Consumer Affairs department and NY Rising.

Gutterman’s contractor’s license has been revoked, according to village officials.

Calls to Gutterman went to voicemail, which did not allow a message to be left.

Joseph Madigan, the village’s Building Department superintendent, said the department would amend or waive permit fees for the residents dealing with Gutterman. “You guys are my neighbors,” Madigan said. “We’re trying to do what we can.”

By the time all the paperwork for Lily Gonzalez’s house is resolved, however, she said, her family could be homeless. Gonzalez said she hired Gutterman more than a year ago to start the mandatory elevation of her home on Nassau Avenue, but $70,000 later, her house still has not been raised. If it is not elevated by June 1, she said, she could be forced out of the NY Rising Program, which offers funding to homeowners like her to help them repair and lift their Sandy-damaged homes.

Gonzalez said she followed the construction plan outlined by Gutterman, moving with her husband and three young children into a rental property at the beginning of April 2017, thinking that Gutterman would soon start to elevate their home. Gonzalez said she hired the contractor because he was one of the most reasonably priced among a number of contractors she met with. She never imagined, she said, that her family would still be in limbo a year later. Now she is growing increasingly nervous.

Initially, she said, she was relieved when the NY Rising program was established, but now Gonzalez said her outlook is far grimmer.

A letter on the NY Rising website, dated Nov. 16, 2017, states that homeowners must meet certain milestones in the reconstruction and elevation of their homes to keep their state funding. As of April 26, the Gonzalez home remained untouched, with a storage pod housing family members’ belongings on the front lawn. They are losing hope, Lily said, of meeting the state’s June 1 deadline to raise their home and of remaining in the NY Rising program.

“What if we don’t get the house in the air by the June?” she asked. “What are we supposed to do? Where am I going to get the money? Freddy [Gutterman] has my money.

“We’re paying close to $6,000 a month in mortgage and rental expenses,” she added.

The Gonzalez family isn’t alone. Others said they were in the same situation.

Greg May, the county’s consumer affairs commissioner, said that homeowners should apply for hardship assistance and interim mortgage assistance from NY Rising.

Catie Marshall, a spokeswoman in the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, said that homeowners should not report contractor issues to GOSR first, but rather to the county Consumer Affairs office, followed by the district attorney’s office and then NY Rising. According to Marshall, GOSR is aware of the complaints against Gutterman and JBJ Construction, and an investigator will review hardship applications.

“I just want to go home,” Gonzalez said through tears. “I trusted this man to do the job. I hired him to go. Now I’m out 70 grand. How am I going to get my money back?”

A representative of the district attorney’s office could not be reached for comment.