Stringing Lights

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Hopefully we return feeling something like this. Well, maybe minus the blow-up characters.

The good:  We have a free trip to the Bahamas for Christmas, and a new (not free), more comfortable apartment.

The bad:  Home is still months away.

The ugly:  New York Rising will subtract the amount of Sandy Survivors’ disaster loans (with interest) from any (free) grant they may have otherwise qualified for because their insurance companies grossly underpaid.

I have been trying to focus on the good.  So:  I cannot wait to put down my Hurricane Bag, and not open my full, industrial-size file cabinet drawer of storm paperwork for seven days and six nights.  I can’t wait to not be tempted to drive past my house and see it empty, a silent shell.  To not push down anger bubbles, to not need a sleep aid, to not hear a sump pump go off.  I will not miss having a Christmas tree, or making lasagna, for another year.  I won’t think about how we were supposed to be home.  I won’t wonder about next year.

I will, though, be thinking about all those in storm limbo, who were not given two tickets to all-inclusive heaven.   I will think about those who, like us, have fallen through the cracks/been bound by red tape/insert cliché metaphor.  Thousands are spending another holiday season in a wrecked house, hotel room, small apartment, or family member’s guest room.   Steve and I have been strategizing how to pay rent and mortgage since last March when FEMA cut off our housing assistance.

Many Long Islanders who managed to have their FEMA funding extended through December are facing this all-encompassing problem for the first time:  How do we come up with next month’s rent and not lose our house?  They have children.  If they do not have extended family of means or friends strategizing a fundraiser, the answer is simple: They cannot pay both.   They must pay rent and lose the house.  If they choose to pay mortgage they will be out on the street with their babies.

These are people who had insurance.

These numbers are anecdotal and estimated, but it seems insurance companies have paid about a third to half of repairs/raising/rebuild.  In our case, about half.  Way back before Steve and I saw any insurance money, we applied for an SBA (government disaster) loan.  We were looking for help from FEMA, since it would be months before we got any insurance money, and we knew we’d never get home without help.  We were informed that we needed to apply for the loan in order to qualify for any grants or assistance.

So…we did.  Both of us had great credit.  We got approved for a loan.  It took ten months and four file folders of paperwork to get this money we thought we needed to take.  Meanwhile, I was working on paperwork for the New York Rising state program.  Our inspector and case worker(s) told us it was guaranteed money and worth every hour of aggravation.  “Everyone is getting it.  And you will qualify for a lot.  Look at your house!”

We were glad we’d applied for the loan because we had been told that would guarantee we would qualify for grant money.

Until Opposite Day.

Oh, no.  It DISqualifies you.

Here’s how it NOW works:

If you were not financially secure before the storm, and insurance didn’t give you enough to repair/ raise/ rebuild, then NY Rising will give you the money to do so.  It might take awhile, they say, but they will.  You might be homeless for Christmas and New Year’s, but just wait.  It’s coming.  “THE MONEY IS COMING.”

If you were comfortable enough able to completely cover what insurance didn’t with your own money, and you applied for a New York Rising grant while living in your brand-spanking-new mansion on the water, you will be reimbursed for the cost of repairs.  Reimbursed!  Not for the marble floors, you understand–but still.  Reimbursed!

If you were sort of OK financially, and you disregarded FEMA’s advice to take the loan, you could still get the NY Rising grant because they assume the reason you never accepted the loan was because it would have been a “hardship” to pay it off.  Of course, it would have.

But no one seems concerned about the extreme hardship you face now if you are still not home and you did take the loan, because you are a rule follower; or because you didn’t want to wait a year to see if NY Rising was real after being screwed by insurance companies, FEMA, the ICC, hired workers, the county, the city, you name it; or because you needed to get your house built quickly as you were paying rent, mortgage, taxes, increased insurance, bills at two places, storage fees, permit fees, new cars, and loans on storm-wrecked businesses.

You are screwed.  That loan money will be subtracted from your grant leaving you with next to nothing or nothing.  Fix your house with that SBA loan, and you will be on your own paying it off for the next 19 years.  We will pay your next-door neighbor’s repairs up front, and your neighbors on the other side will be reimbursed.  But not you.  You are not needy enough, nor wealthy enough.  So we’ll make sure that you remain in debt until you retire.

I’m sorry; is this not a hardship?

Many of our neighbors are facing this very scenario.  In February, Steve and I will mark one year of paying for two living spaces right as we make our first payment on the second mortgage (disaster loan) we were advised to take if we wanted the help we never received.  People we know will only start having to pay off that loan just as FEMA throws them out of their temporary housing.  Families with children will have to pay at least $1400 for rent in this area, and I have heard of monthly payoff amounts on these loans as high as $800 a month.  Could you come up with a cool $2200 a month after your savings and retirement funds have been depleted?  What are they going to do?  WHAT ARE THEY GOING TO DO?

We will not forget while on our trip, but I hope there is a time I can look into Steve’s eyes on some balmy balcony and they are not fogged over with worry.   We have found a few moments of peace these last few weeks, as friends have had us for home-cooked meals, taken us out for dinners and fundraisers, and just all-out funded our fun.  We look at each other and say, Was that real?  Did we just have a moment of forgetting?  Didn’t that feel normal, like just plain love or laughter?

We know we can string a few of those in the Bahamas, like Christmas lights going on one by one, decorating our hearts and lighting our minds.

When we return, we will go on fighting for what is right.

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2 responses to “Stringing Lights

  1. Before I can even find words to try to express my contempt for the injustices you and others like you are facing, I have to giggle at that wonderful house in your old neighborhood. Every year I wander your old streets looking for that house to show the girls!! Gotta go-it is almost as absurd as your situation, but at least the house makes you smile, not cry. (Do hope it is not a dear childhood friend…if so, no offense!) xoxo

    • Haha–I know! The first time someone showed it to me they told me to close my eyes and then pulled up to face it–I lost it!!! I don’t know them but that house does the trick every time. The picture in this blog doesn’t even really show the GIANT reindeer that is bigger than the house! Love you, Stacey.

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