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Housing Advocate Claims Sandy Recovery Grants Racially Biased

Controversial -- and contested -- findings indicate blacks more than twice as likely to be rejected than whites

WHYY Sandy Chart

Black and Latino applicants for Sandy aid in New Jersey are more likely to be rejected for recovery grants than white applicants, according to data released Thursday by a New Jersey housing advocate.

The rejection rate for whites who applied for New Jersey’s two main grants for homeowners affected by Sandy was 13 to 14 percent. For Latinos, it was slightly higher – 18 to 20 percent; African Americans had the highest rejection rates at 35 to 38 percent.

“That is very concerning because we would hope that federal recovery money would be equally available to everyone who was impacted by the storm,” said Adam Gordon, a staff attorney with Fair Share Housing, which received this data as part of a lawsuit against that state seeking access to information about how Sandy grant money has been distributed.

The Christie administration strongly disagreed with the organization's findings.

“This is an outrageously false implication that exposes a complete lack of credibility and integrity by Fair Share Housing Center,” said Richard Constable, the commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs, in a written statement.

Constable emphasized that criteria for the Sandy programs were approved by the Obama administration and do not take race into account in evaluating applications for assistance. He did not address why there might be higher rejection numbers for blacks and Latinos.

As part of its lawsuit, Fair Share Housing received data on grant awards made through the end of September in the state’s Resettlement Program and its Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program – two of its largest grants for homeowners whose property was damaged during Sandy.

While Fair Share cited problems with the quality of information in Spanish-language versions of the grant applications and a lack of advertising about the grants, there’s no way to know what might be causing the disparities from this data alone. Morever, while rejection rates were higher for minorities, a larger share of white applicants were waitlisted than Latino or African American applicants for the RREM program; acceptance rates in that program were also slightly higher for Latinos than Caucasians.

In a news release, the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP and Latino Action Network joined with Fair Share to say that the racial disparities in the data is worrisome and deserves further investigation.

Disasters can produce challenges for governments seeking to create fast, effective and fair aid distribution programs.

“I would say, in terms of disaster response, it’s the worst time for governments to really try to get [its programs] right,” said Karen O’Neill, a human ecology professor at Rutgers University who’s been following the Sandy response. “Because getting it right with disadvantaged communities is a problem any day of the week for any ongoing programs, [and] these are one-time programs.”

Minority communities tend to have less wealth than their white counterparts and a shorter history of homeownership, according to O’Neill, which means they may be less prepared for disaster such as Sandy – both financially and by stowing important documents in a safety deposit box, for example.

“What this means is that you really need really well-trained case workers,” said O’Neill. “They routinely have to patch together a pretty spotty document trail because, in some cases, people really do lose the documents [during a disaster].”

The state may need to actively seek out qualified applicants as well and help them through the complex application process.

“It’s very confusing to people,” said O’Neill. “So even people who are very highly resourced are confused about the criteria, about the application process.”

Listen to the accompanying podcast.

Interactive tables: Colleen O'Dea.

Tracey Samuelson currently covers Hurricane Sandy recovery and rebuilding along the Jersey Shore for WHYY and NewsWorks.

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