Five Brooklyn Pols Sue Over Sandy Food Stamps

Photo by: Pearl Gabel
In November, a table outside NYCHA's Gravesend Houses had food available all day.

They're asking a state judge to overturn the Bloomberg administration's decision to offer federal disaster food assistance in only 12 of the 82 ZIP codes affected by the hurricane.

By: Jarrett Murphy

Five Brooklyn politicians have asked a state court to force the Bloomberg administration to offer disaster Food Stamp benefits to a broader swath of the city.

The lawsuit by Brooklyn City Councilmen Lew Fidler and Steven Levin, State Assembly members Alan Maisel and Joan Millman, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery and a group of storm victims claims that flaws in the city's D-SNAP program “excluded tens if not hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible individuals who suffered damages to their homes, cars, personal property, and many of whom experienced a loss of income.”

SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and is the official name for the Food Stamp program. D or Disaster SNAP was a one-time food stamp grant offered in December to people affected by the storm who did not already receive food stamps.

The program boasted looser eligibility rules than regular food stamps: Undocumented immigrants were permitted to apply and there was a higher income cut off. A family of four is normally barred from getting food stamps if its gross income exceeds $30,000, but under D-SNAP, that family could make up to $48,408 a year and still qualify for a benefit—if it could demonstrate that it suffered damage to a home or business or lost income as a result of Sandy.

“By providing this additional supplement to families in need, New York City is showing once again that we are doing all we can to respond to the needs of New Yorkers in the wake of the storm,” Human Resources Administration Commissioner Robert Doar said when the program was launched in December.

However, D-SNAP benefits were offered only to residents of 12 ZIP codes: 11224 and 11235 in Coney Island, 11231 in Red Hook, parts of 11229 in Gerritsen Beach, 10002 on the Lower East Side, 10306 and part of 10305 in Staten Island and the five ZIP codes that comprise the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens.

HRA says it targeted D-SNAP to areas that were hit by significant flooding that caused extensive damage across a wide area, communities that endured power outages for longer than two weeks and neighborhoods that have a concentration of public housing developments that lost power, heat or hot water.

But the lawsuit—drafted by the Legal Aid Society—claims that the city's limits excluded many hard-hit areas, like Canarsie, Mill Basin and the Gowanus Houses, which was flooded by the overflow from the Gowanus Canal and lost power for 12 days. By omitting those areas and including others, the lawsuit argues, the city violated the state constitution's equal protection clause.

In a statement, HRA said, “In concert with our state and federal partners, we administered a program that met the needs of those most impacted by the storm.  We will contest any litigation on the matter.” HRA did not provide numbers of D-SNAP recipients by press time.

HRA says it offered several kinds of food aid after Sandy, including expediting deliveries to food pantries and soup kitchens, securing a waiver so food stamp recipients can use their benefits to buy hot or prepared meals and sending an automatic replacement benefit to 300,000 existing food stamp households in 82 ZIP codes. The pols' lawsuit actually cites that broader program in criticizing the 12-ZIP code limit to D-SNAP.

SNAP benefits are federally funded, with the city paying only for a portion of the administrative costs. At least since the mid-1990s, food advocates have pushed the city to expand participation in the program. Under Mayor Bloomberg, food stamp use has swelled from fewer than 800,000 recipients when he became mayor to more than 1.8 million in November.

But the administration has resisted changes that advocates claim would expand participation even more.

New York City has long qualified for a waiver that would permit jobless adults without kids or disabilities to escape time limits on receiving food stamps, but the Bloomberg administration has steadfastly refused to accept that aid.

And in what was billed as an anti-fraud measure, the city continued to fingerprint food stamp recipients until the practice was halted by Gov. Cuomo last year.