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Union Beach Residents Face Limited Options After Sandy

Tara Nurin | March 15, 2013

Caught without mortgages and insurance, many Bayshore bungalow owners can't afford to rebuild or remain.

A typical bungalow or "cottage" in Union Beach.
A typical bungalow or "cottage" in Union Beach.

In the self-described blue-collar boro of Union Beach, the frustrated pronouncement, “I’m still waiting for my money,” punctuates so many conversations that it's almost a refrain among homeowners who -- four months after Sandy -- have yet to receive the insurance checks that will help them cover critical home repairs or elevations or both.

Yet despite the prolonged uncertainty and displacement, they are the lucky ones.

Dozens of their neighbors in the Monmouth County town -- where half the population qualifies for low-income federal assistance -- have no insurance at all.

Union Beach is one of a handful of year-round Bayshore communities whose housing includes miniature bungalows, sometimes called “cottages,” that date to the beginning of the 20th century or earlier.

Some are occupied by descendants of the original owners or by seniors who bought and paid off the houses decades ago. On fixed incomes and with no mortgage to require insurance, some of these residents have opted to forego homeowner and flood policies.

For them, there is no check in the mail.

“When my husband and I bought this house in 1969, it had two bedrooms and a bathroom. We raised three kids here,” said Eileen Gubelman, a retired widow whose 37-by-36-foot cottage was one of 100 Union Beach homes demolished by the city this winter. Eighty more will come down before spring.

Collateral Damage

The cottage-count is only the beginning of Union Beach's catalog of losses.

Out of the 2,600 houses that make up the small boro (it only takes a few minutes to walk end to end), some 85 percent were flooded with at least two feet of water.

The boro also lost four firehouses and an ambulance squad. The K-8 school flooded and is still locked. And 14 police cars, four fire trucks, and three ambulances (fully reimbursable) were turned into scrap metal.

Click to enlarge.

Gubelman is once again living with her adult children, but this time she rents a Cliffwood Beach apartment with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren.

She’s not sure what to do with her property, given that she has no money to rebuild and fears that a new house on old ground may conjure up memories of her late husband, who passed away last month. He lived just four months longer than her mother.

“Who’s going to give a 68-year-old woman a mortgage with no income except social security?” she asked.

Going Up

If she does decide to rebuild -- possibly with a residential loan from the Small Business Administration -- she’ll have to raise her house at least two feet higher than the new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) base flood elevation maps dictate, to comply with Union Beach law.

But satisfying the minimum height requirements could mean that Gubelman will run afoul of the boro’s height maximums, which top out at 35 feet.

Luckily, Union Beach’s emergency management coordinator says Gubelman and others in her position can safely disregard the maximum height restrictions if and when they elevate, as long as they stay within their former footprint.

That’s because town officials realize they’ll probably have to adjust the 35-foot maximum to account for revised FEMA flood requirements, which will likely raise houses to a greater height.

The obvious solution might be for Gubleman to sell her land. If she chooses that option, she’s lucky to live in Union Beach -- rather than neighboring Highlands. The reason: her lot is small, just 50 x 110 feet, and Highlands and many communities with equally small lots prohibit building a home any larger than its current footprint.

Though Highlands and other municipalities expect to make exceptions for current owners rebuilding after Sandy, new buyers would have to convince planning boards to approve a variety of variances.

In Union Beach however, a pre-Sandy court ruling overturned a zoning code that prohibited new construction on lots smaller than 75 x 100 feet. So Gubelman could sell.

The Letter of the Law

Unfortunately, like so many others, complicated and regularly revised post-Sandy regulations have left Gubelman with a grave misconception: she believes herself to be the only person who can rebuild on her lot.

She's not alone in this misconception. And she's far from the only Union Beach resident who feels trapped and uncertain of the future.

Boro Administrator Jennifer Wenson Maier suggests that constituents like Gubelman seek out opportunities to sell to foundations or trusts that would preserve the land as open space.

The boro can’t do it on its own, considering that officials are wrestling with the question of how to replace firehouses, a school, and a fleet of municipal vehicles. Then factor in an estimated $1.3 million worth of annual property taxes sacrificed to a post-Sandy reevaluation. That’s one-eighth of the boro’s entire operating budget.

As a housing alternative, Wenson Maier is reaching out to some of her poorest and hardest-hit constituents to offer four prototypes of a solar-heated, energy-efficient modular house. These will be built using a $725,000 grant from the New York-based Robin Hood Foundation. She’s hoping to attract additional money to give more houses away later.

“Initially they would be for the poorest of the poor,” she said.

She hopes others who don’t want to leave the community can afford to finance their own full-sized modular homes. The foundation and solar panels cost about $50,000; the house itself, $100 per square foot.

The boro is recommending three builders, at least one of whom has put together reduced-rate group packages that account for Union Beach lot sizes, contain appliances, and can be partially customized and ordered and delivered in less than two months.

Blowing Hot and Cold

But as with seemingly every post-Sandy step forward, Union Beach residents are reminded that the path is far from straight.

“Just when you’re feeling good,” stated Susan Fouts, whose husband has been paying the mortgage on their soon-to-be-demolished house for 15 years, “guess what’s not included when you go for most of the prefabs? Heat or air.”

Wenson Maier understands that the added layer of complexity and cost may compel some owners to abandon their bungalows and make a substantial profit selling to developers.

“This has been a lot to deal with. It’s easier to say, ‘Take my land. I didn’t have a mortgage,” said Maggie Moniz, who adds that as an employee at the municipal construction office, she’s fielded numerous queries from real estate agents fishing for sellers.

After all, she said, “It’s waterfront property.”

Up and down the shoreline, whispers warn of the impending development of so-called starter castles, outsized houses that ignore and overpower the character of their host communities.

In Union Beach, there are unconfirmed rumors of developer speculation. Even Linda Hoff, a long-time resident and real estate developer who’s made a career of filling local lots with new homes or condos, says that’s a scary prospect for residents who decide to remain in what she calls “God’s little country.”

“The people who have been here would not feel comfortable. It would be like Atlantic City -- one area with beautiful and expensive homes and other areas that look like they do,” she said.

Saying that her neighbors “have been through enough,” Hoff is not approaching them with offers to buy and speaks only to the handful of neighbors who’ve come to her.

But many in Union Beach hope everyone decides to stay.

Looking toward Highlands, where nearly 15 percent of storm-damaged homes have been abandoned, and fearing a permanent blow to tax revenue, Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Harriott unsuccessfully asked FEMA to drop off trailers for locals to live in while they considered next steps.

“I hear a lot of people saying, ‘Take the house, see ya later. They’re rebuilding their life but they’re rebuilding it somewhere else. If that continues to happen we’re in trouble,” he said.

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter in 2005, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.

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