The first signs were little things. Storefronts with wood instead of glass in their picture windows. Then the signs became more pronounced: trees upended, their roots exposed like some kind of garish sculpture; buildings with huge gashes in their façades; and a series of strange-looking poles on the beach that had, once upon a time, been supports for the boardwalk, now blown away by Hurricane Sandy.
This is Far Rockaway, Queens, in late November, a war zone where a one-day “warrior” swept in, conquered the inhabitants, and took no prisoners. Now, it is left to the condominium and cooperative owners – among the many displaced people living here – to pick up the shards of the broken glass that were their lives.
For me, witnessing the devastation firsthand was heart-wrenching. I have lived almost my whole life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and, as most everyone knows, that area was largely unaffected by the storm.
On our brief visit, Habitat publisher Carol Ott and I spoke to a unit-owner in a condominium, Julia Monge, whose basement was completely flooded and was now dealing with an insurance company that didn’t want to pay. She and her husband took out homeowners’ and flood insurance, but now they’re being told they’re not fully covered. She said that the duplex condo apartment, part of Shore View Condominiums at Rockaway Beach, “is all we have. We don’t have savings because everything was depleted with [the storm].”
Monge’s story has become all too familiar in the media. Less familiar are the issues facing condo and co-op boards. “We have very little money right now,” noted Janie Simmons, president of the 20-plus units known as Shore View Condominiums, which took a big hit from the storm. “We’ve just taken our reserves out just to pay for materials, generators, some pumps. We basically are going to have to assess everybody in order to pay for the rebuilding of the basement apartments.”
The condo association has been hampered because the management firm that does its accounting is based in Queens and has literally been under water. “Last Friday, they were still running on generators, had no heat, were not really able to tell us what our balance was – who paid, who hadn’t.”
She expressed a fear that may be common to boards affected by the storm: “We have a lot of people here who find it very hard to pay their common charges. They often pay late, so I expect that some of those people may have a difficult time and that may put the condo association in jeopardy. We can’t afford to have any unit-owners not paying common charges or assessments.”
Nonetheless, Simmons said that the condo felt a particular responsibility to owners like Monge, who had lost so much: “We’re all in this together. Basically, if we don’t make the first floor and basements whole again, what’s the value of our place? There was the expectation that we had insurance that would cover everybody and it turns out our insurance is questionable at most. So, we’re trying to make sure that they’re going to get everything they can from their insurance policy.”
At another, larger co-op association, Dayton Beach Park, 1,147 units in five buildings, there are similar concerns. But Jennifer Grady, the president, is practicing a form of tough love: “We expect people to pay their maintenance and we will begin cases if we have to,” she said. “We don’t want to, and try to explain to them as much as we can that they need to pay their maintenance. It’s a sad time, but it has to be business as usual. You have to enforce your occupancy agreements.”