A Co-Op Is a Home

Thousands of New Yorkers who live in co-ops suffered extensive damage to their property during Superstorm Sandy last year.

But unlike the homeowners on Staten Island and other parts of the storm-ravaged coastline, the co-op owners do not qualify for federal assistance to repair some of the damage to their apartments. That’s because under Federal Emergency Management Agency rules, co-ops are considered businesses. That means individual owners cannot obtain FEMA aid to repair storm-ravaged walls and floors, because the co-op itself is responsible for those repairs.

FEMA says it can do nothing until or unless the rules are changed. So it’s up to New York’s Congressional delegation to push for common-sense adjustments in FEMA’s regulations. Senator Charles Schumer had it exactly right when he said that to deny aid to co-op owners simply is wrong, and the city estimates that at least 13,000 co-op apartments sustained damage as a result of Sandy.

Technically, co-op owners sign leases for their apartments, which means that in a very legalistic sense, they are not property-owners like, say, the owner of a single-family home in Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, or a condo owner in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

But New Yorkers know that this technicality is just that, a technicality. Those who live in co-ops have made an investment, just as the owners of other properties have. Many co-op owners in New York are seniors or people of modest means. But according to federal rules, they’re on their own if the building requires a new boiler or roof or other repairs.

In the meantime, non-FEMA aid—which is not subject to the same restrictions—can and should be directed to co-op owners as quickly as possible. Officials have indicated that co-op owners are eligible for a share of the $50 billion in federal disaster funding, but it will be up to the state and city to distribute the money.

Moving forward, New Yorkers need to take the lead in changing FEMA eligibility rules to better reflect the complex realities of home ownership.