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Renters: Hurricane Sandy's Invisible Victims

Hank Kalet | June 26, 2013

Living with friends or family, with no leases and no permanent address, Sandy's displaced are hard to find and harder to help.

Steven Zitz moved to Sayreville when he was in high school and had lived in the Sayreville-South River area for the past 20 years. He had his own business as a house painter and had been working regularly despite the stagnant economy.

Superstorm Sandy changed all that.

His aunt’s house, where he was renting a room, was badly damaged. He lost his work van and has been staying with an uncle in Brooklyn since the storm, unable to work and unable to qualify for government assistance.

“I’m in a very tough spot,” he said. “My back is not only to the wall, it’s through the wall.”

Zitz is one of the thousands of renters who still find themselves scrambling to rebuild their lives. While state and federal agencies have assisted 21,000 renters, several thousand more have likely fallen through the cracks, though the number is difficult to pin down, advocates for low-income residents say. Unlike property records, such as deeds and mortgages, the state does not require that lease agreements be filed with the counties. And many landlord-tenant arrangements are informal, operating on a month-to-month basis.

State officials say they are doing what they can for renters and that the state’s recovery plan includes what the administration calls “a range of rental housing activities designed to replenish rental housing stock lost to Sandy, rehabilitate affordable rental units left uninhabitable by Sandy, and provide affordable housing for special needs populations.”

For instance, the $40 million Landlord Incentive Program, announced June 21, will provide direct aid to landlords who rent their units as affordable housing. Landlords would receive the difference between 30 percent of the tenant’s monthly income and the federal fair market rents for the region each month, which will “ensure that participating landlords receive a stable monetary incentive” for the two years the program is intended to operate. It is expected to aid about 1,000 families and is part of a larger effort to create more than 7,000 affordable housing units statewide over the next two years.

The program is part of the federally approved disaster recovery plan. The state is receiving $1.83 billion in federal relief from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, $1.2 billion of which is earmarked for housing assistance. HUD required that 30 percent of that -- or $379 million -- go to programs that assist renters, which the state Department of Community Affairs says is consistent with the needs assessment conducted in the wake of the storm. The state found that 72 percent of the primary residences that were damaged by the storm were owner-occupied and 28 percent were rental properties. Most of the HUD housing money, according to the state, is targeted to programs designed to expand the stock of rental and low-income housing.

Hurricanes Don't Discriminate

“We recognize that Superstorm Sandy impacted people of all socioeconomic levels and we are concerned with helping both homeowners and renters in the recovery effort,” DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said in an email.

The DCA, which has taken the lead on much of the relocation efforts, estimates that about 116,000 New Jersey residents were displaced in the aftermath of the storm, though the “overwhelming majority were able to quickly return to their home without assistance,” Ryan said.

More than 260,000 households registered for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, she said. Of those that registered, 58 percent -- or about 150,000 -- were homeowners. The rest were renters. Overall, 26,800 homeowners and 17,500 renters have received rental assistance from FEMA since November 2012, she said.

“These numbers do not include households that participated in FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program,” she said.

The sheltering program was put in place on November 3 and ended April 30. It was designed to move storm survivors who were unable to return to their homes because of storm damage from shelters into hotels and motels until longer-term housing could be found. According to the FEMA website, more than 5,500 people were provided with a total of “195,000 room nights in 435 hotels and motels at a cost of more than $23 million.”

The DCA says that about 2,100 homeowners and 3,500 renters were helped by the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program. The state Department of Human Services, which oversaw the TSA for the state, said 27 families were without housing when the TSA expired on April 30, and all but three families have since found housing. The three remaining families -- from Ocean, Cape May and Middlesex counties -- are receiving support from the American Red Cross.

However, the DCA estimates that, as of June 10, “23,400 FEMA-registered households (including both homeowners and renters) remain displaced,” which does not mean that they are without housing, only that they have been forced to move from their original residence.

“We arrive at this figure based on the number of primary residence households that were referred to the FEMA Individual Assistance program and that report their current address as being different from the damaged property address,” Ryan said. “While not a perfect approach, we believe this gives a rough estimated picture.”

The Fair Share Housing Center, a group that advocates for the construction of affordable housing, has been reaching out to displaced renters. They have issued several press releases and reports critical of the Christie administration’s approach to rebuilding, saying that the state’s plan focuses too much on business and homeowners and not enough on renters, who tend to be more vulnerable to disruptions like Hurricane Sandy.

“The most vulnerable now are those who were most vulnerable then and they are more vulnerable now than they were before,” Kevin Walsh, director of the Fair Share Housing Center, said. “Without a concerted effort from the government and others it will probably have a lifetime impact.”

He said that the renters who were displaced “are the people who are least likely to have insurance.”

“They are the least likely to have well-paying jobs and the most likely to suffer long-term impact if not given help to get back on their feet,” he said.

Critical of Christie

Walsh had been critical of Christie on housing issues before the storm. The Fair Share Housing Center is one of the plaintiffs in a suit challenging the governor’s efforts to eliminate the state Council on Affordable Housing and has often taken the lead in pushing local governments to build more affordable units. He said the storm only exacerbated the shortage, by damaging existing housing stock and creating more competition for fewer units.

“There already was a shortage of rental housing and already a shortage of housing for working families and others with lower incomes,” Walsh said.

Ryan, of the DCA, said the criticisms were off base and that the administration has an aggressive program in place to help everyone affected by the storm.

"Not only are we allocating considerable funds to rental housing, we are doing so at a greater ratio than the damage assessment indicates.”

In addition, she said, DCA has held two rental fairs -- in Toms River on April 6 and in Atlantic City in May 17 – and has set aside 1,000 federal Section 8 Special Admissions Housing Choice Vouchers for low-income families. The vouchers, according to the DCA website, are worth an average of $9,840 per year per family and are used to subsidize rents in the private rental market. A total of 714 had been issued as of mid-May, with 318 families having either moved into permanent housing or are about to do so, according to the DCA website.

The vouchers, said Ryan, are “an emergency measure to assist Sandy survivors,” and the state plans to “continue to work with those who have received Special Admission vouchers and assist them in moving into permanent housing.”

Jennifer Mayer, whose South Amboy apartment was damaged in superstorm Sandy, received a voucher, which along with a security deposit provided by Catholic Charities of the Metuchen Diocese, has allowed her to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Perth Amboy with her boyfriend and 1-year-old son, after bouncing from shelter to hotel after the storm.

That lack of stability was difficult, she said. They’d lost everything in the storm -- clothing, furniture, supplies for her baby and all of her personal paperwork -- and spent several weeks in shelters in Old Bridge and later at the Louis Brown Athletic Center on the Rutgers Piscataway campus.

“We were living off of donations,” she said. “The first night we were there, they were already was preparing food, they had somebody going out, they had a team if you needed something for the baby they would go out and get it. The volunteers and everyone were very good, then the next day the donations starting coming. But it was -- it felt like we were in a refugee camp.”

From there, they went to a TSA hotel in East Brunswick, which was about 25 minutes from where she was working. Daycare was a problem, however.

“Daycare took my son off the roster,” she said, “so I couldn’t put him in daycare, and I couldn’t go to work because there was no daycare.”

Now that she is settled, she said, she is looking for a daycare facility in which to enroll her son. Once she does that, she say, she will find a job.

“We were at the point where we were moving between shelters and hotels and I didn’t know where to look,” she said. “Now that I am situated and getting furniture into my apartment, I can get my house situated.”

Not Showing Up in the Count

Not everyone has been so lucky. Marianne Majewski, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Metuchen Diocese, said that there are a large number of displaced people who are not counted in official numbers, because they are not homeowners or they may not have had leases. Catholic Charities has made reaching out to them a priority, but it is difficult to know how many there are or where they are living.

“There are a lot of people sleeping on people’s couches,” she said. “They are living hand to mouth and don’t have money for a security deposit and furniture.”

Melissa Chedid, who was a caseworker for Catholic Charities through mid-May, said that many end up “staying with in-laws or staying with family.” They are “not trackable,” she said, because they are not in shelters and have not reached out to public or private agencies for direct assistance. When interviewed in May, she said she had about 10 clients living with other people -- about a third of her active client list.

“They are not ones we consider displaced because they are in a place,” she said. “But they are displaced.”

Majewski said the situation at a low-income apartment building in Carteret was typical of the difficulties Catholic Charities faced tracking those who were displaced. About half of the 120 tenants could not be found in the weeks after the storm, and even after significant outreach and detective work, Majewski said they were only able to locate 10 additional tenants. That meant that 50 of them remain displaced and may not be receiving services.

This mirrors the problems that advocates have counting the homeless, said Tonya Bryan, executive director of the N.J. Coalition to End Homelessness. The annual homeless count generally focuses on people living in shelters or on the streets and does not account for people who have doubled up with friends or family -- which is what they are seeing with attempts to account for those displaced by Sandy.

“People were put up by FEMA, by insurance, by other agencies,” Bryan said. “When those limits ran out, many of these people were forced to live with families, friends, neighbors. Those are the numbers that are very difficult to capture.”

She said the storm is likely to have a trickle-down effect. With more people being forced to compete for a shrinking number of housing units, those who already were most vulnerable are likely to find themselves losing out.

“It could be loss of employment due to the storm and because of that they don’t have enough money to pay the rent,” she said.

“In New Jersey, we already had a lack of affordable housing,” she said. “It is now a greater challenge. The affordable housing was still inadequate when you look at the needs across the state. When you look at Sandy, that makes for a huge impact on the current homeless community and those folks being added to the community.”

Back On the Streets

For Patrick Thorpe, a 62-year-old African-American ex-convict who has been homeless on and off for many years, the storm has resulted in him being back on the streets. Most recently, Thorpe had been homeless for nearly two years after getting out of prison. He found shelter at the Rescue Mission of Atlantic City and moved into a one-room emergency apartment on the Blackhorse Pike in late-summer 2012. He lived there for about a month and a half when Superstorm Sandy hit. He was sheltered at a school building in Pleasantville after the storm and then spent about six weeks in a hotel, but has been back on the streets since the winter.

“I don’t have any housing right now, none at all,” he said. “I’m just hanging out, really, and every once in a while I may stop at a friend’s place, other than that no housing at all.”

He receives $140 in general assistance, plus food stamps, he says, and participates in a day program at Behavioral Crossroads, a mental health and substance abuse facility in Egg Harbor Township.

“I sleep at the bus station, or wherever I can,” he said. “It is a serious hardship. I am still seeking housing. The goal now is to get more stable.”

Zitz, the Sayreville painter who has been staying with an uncle in Brooklyn, says he is lucky to have a roof over his head. But that does not mean he has been able to get on with his life. He wants to move back to the Sayreville area and rebuild his painting business, but he feels like he’s been “put on the back burner.”

“It has been a struggle for me to get money from FEMA as a renter, because I wasn’t renting as a renter with a lease,” he said. “That shouldn’t make a difference.”

Hank Kalet is a veteran journalist and editor who has covered economic issues, government, and entertainment in central New Jersey for more than two decades.

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