Sandy homeless trapped between forces of nature and market


New York

Lorraine Massoni crawled north on Brooklyn's Coney Island Avenue in a rented minivan along with her three children, hoping she wouldn't miss an apartment viewing in her hunt to relocate from a flooded Rockaway home.

"I have reached out to I can't even tell you how many Realtors," Massoni, 44, said as traffic slowed beside yet another blocks-long line for gasoline. "They tell you they have places, they say, 'Let me talk to the landlord and see if they take dogs,' then nothing. They don't even call you back."

Sandy's hurricane-force winds drove surging Atlantic Ocean floodwaters into her New York neighborhood Oct. 29, and the Massoni family joined thousands suddenly left homeless by the storm. With temperatures near freezing, her family has shuttled among friends and relatives while she looks at apartments like the two-bedroom in Kensington, where the $2,150 monthly rent tops the $2,495 she got for two months from a federal relief agency.

With rental vacancy rates in the city's Brooklyn and Queens boroughs hovering between 2 percent and 3 percent, many dislocated New Yorkers are having trouble finding a new place to live, buffeted by the forces of nature and the market. The 1,200-square-foot apartment Massoni walked through, on the second floor of a century-old row house, is half the size of her home -- inadequate for her family of five. She kept looking.

"It couldn't be worse timing," says Jonathan Miller, president of Miller Samuel Inc. in New York. The market in Brooklyn is tight partly because banks are reluctant to write mortgages, so few renters are buying a home and moving out, he said. With hotel occupancy rates at high levels, Miller said, "there's just not a lot of places to stay."

When apartments do come on the market, prices can be steep.

In Brooklyn, the average rent for a two-bedroom unit was $3,148 in September, up 11 percent from a year earlier, according to MNS Brands Inc. in New York, which produces property reports. Restrictions on available rent-stabilized apartments force landlords to demand at least a one-year lease, said Andrew Westphal, the broker at the Kensington apartment. The Massonis aim to be back home within six months, she said.

"Coming to the open market to look for a rental, that's not what these people are prepared to do," Westphal said of the costs confronting the Massonis and other Sandy refugees. He said displaced homeowners, unfamiliar with the rental market and looking for temporary quarters are often shocked at the prices for apartments in the city.

For the Massonis, it's just one more blow in the past two weeks.

When Sandy swept over the Queens peninsula where they lived, Massoni and her husband, Paul, 44, were home with their children, 20-year-old Paul Jr., 17-year-old Michael and 9-year- old Valentina. They had ignored an evacuation order for their low-lying seaside community issued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

"I had a false sense of security" after Hurricane Irene hit in August 2011 and failed to do as much damage as forecast, Massoni said. Then when floodwaters breached the basement garage door last week, she said, "it was like the Titanic."

The next day, the Massonis' lives were a sodden wreck. An insurance adjuster will come next week to look at the family cars, and they're still waiting for a flood-insurance adjuster to assess the cost of rebuilding the basement and re-equipping their home with a boiler and fixing the electrical system.

Their homeowner's insurance won't cover belongings lost to floods, including power tools that will cost thousands of dollars for Paul Sr. to replace. A construction worker, he needs them to repair the house. Insurance also won't cover their ruined washer and dryer, or the cost of six months rent they'll need until they can return home.

Two of the children have missed a week of school. Paul Jr. lost his car and his job, delivering prescriptions for a local pharmacy that was flooded. Now he has no easy way to get to classes at the City University of New York's Brooklyn College, at 2900 Bedford Avenue, where he's a junior.

As Westphal showed her the Kensington apartment, he said the owner wants a tenant with "strong financials." Paul Massoni has only just returned to his job and Lorraine hasn't gone back to work at a skating rink. Besides replacing clothes and lost belongings, the Massonis still have a mortgage to pay.

The apartment is a little far from the family's commuting patterns. Lorraine says they need to be closer to schools while being able to drive to their Rockaway neighborhood each day to clean up the cold, dark house. And she wants an apartment that will accept Valentina's two Chihuahuas, Pixie and Little Dog.

Westphal has little available. Besides having to negotiate the Balkanized ethnic boundaries of the city, the time of year isn't good for new renters, he said.

"Once the kids are in school, people don't want to move much," Westphal said.

Lorraine Massoni has appealed for humane treatment.

"We already lost our home, my kids can't go to school, I'm trying to find some semblance of normalcy, and you're saying you can't take my dogs?" Massoni said, recalling a conversation with a landlord this week. "Have some decency."

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