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Housing Advocates Criticize Christie Administration’s Handling of Sandy Recovery

Groups call for changes to ensure more fairness, effectiveness, and transparency

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Of the more than 8,000 Sandy survivors currently active and eligible for funding through the state’s largest grant program, fewer than 400 so far have gotten the aid they need and been able to finish rebuilding their homes. That’s led the Fair Share Housing Center, the Latino Action Network, and the New Jersey branch of the NAACP to issue a report criticizing the slow progress and calling for a number of reforms.

“A few weeks ago, Gov. Chris Christie did not mention the still ongoing recovery from Superstorm Sandy in his State of the State address,” the authors wrote. “This second annual report fills in what Gov. Christie omitted. Two and a half years after Superstorm Sandy, much work remains to ensure that New Jersey’s rebuilding effort fairly and effectively gets people back home.”

The groups make a number of suggestions, including that the state should issue clearer benchmarks for when the aid will be distributed; offer more short-term assistance, such as rental aid for displaced homeowners; and declare a moratorium on foreclosures for storm victims whose grant money has yet to arrive. For their part, state officials note that recovery spending has quickened in recent months, and they say the pace of progress rests partially in the hands of individual homeowners.

At the center of the controversy is the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program, which provides eligible primary homeowners up to $150,000 to repair or rebuild their storm-damaged homes. Some 15,000 storm victims applied for the funding over the summer of 2013, but their aid has been delayed all this time for a variety of reasons.

First, many storm victims had difficulties obtaining letters from their local officials declaring their homes substantially damaged, which would have given them priority for the aid money. Then the state terminated its relationship with two Sandy contractors after complaints surfaced of multiple problems processing people’s applications, including a high percentage of grant applicants being wrongly rejected. There were also complaints about numerous layers of bureaucratic red tape at all stages of the process, slowing down the flow of aid money.

In the end, several thousand residents were deemed ineligible for funding, and several thousand more withdrew their applications, leaving 8,100 currently in the program, according to state officials. Of those, 6,100 have signed their grants as of this week, up from 5,100 grant signings at the beginning of last month, according to NJ Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Tammori Petty.

“That’s a jump of 1,000 grant signings in less than two months,” she said.

Indeed, recent filings the state prepared for the federal government show the pace of recovery spending has quickened over the past few months. But despite the fact that some 65 percent of aid applicants have now gotten at least initial funding to start the rebuilding process, many of those checks were just issued recently, so homeowners are still in the early stages of construction, and only a few hundred have been able to complete the process.

Petty said that the state has no control over the speed at which the rebuilding process takes places after the funds are distributed.

“Once we provide the initial grant payment to a homeowner, the responsibility shifts to the homeowner to manage the construction and repair their home,” she said.

In addition to criticisms about the inordinate amount of time they feel it’s taking for homeowners to get the help they need, the report’s authors also raised concerns about delays to a program aimed at assisting renters. The Fund for Restoration of Multifamily Housing has a goal of rehabilitating or replacing some 5,400 homes, yet it’s only completed 51 thus far, they said, adding that most will not be available until between late 2015 and 2017.

Overall, New Jersey has spent just over $1 billion dollars on the recovery so far, but that’s less than a third of the total amount it’s been earmarked.

“While some delay is unavoidable in any rebuilding, New Jersey’s deep problems in initial rollout set the state back significantly,” the report said. “We still need to fully account for these problems -- which is hard when the State refuses to release documents that explain them.”

Although Christie signed an integrity-monitor measure into law in March 2013 requiring outside firms to audit all Sandy contracts larger than $5 million to safeguard against waste, fraud, or abuse, the reports have lacked the details some observers had wanted, and the bill’s original author, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has called them “almost a whitewash.”

The report calls for the state to set clear benchmarks as to when it expects to get money out the door and provide monthly progress reports toward meeting those goals. It also calls for more help for homeowners struggling with problem contractors and a more transparent process of checklists and timetables so Sandy victims know where they are in the process, including whether they have to submit any additional documents and how much longer they might have to wait.

The latter recommendation was part of Sweeney’s attempt to pass a “Sandy bill of rights,” but the measure ultimately failed after Christie issued a conditional veto last May, saying it was inconsistent with federal law and would add “wasteful administrative burdens that will hamper ongoing recovery efforts.” Responding to an inquiry, Petty claimed the state is already providing this information.

“Any homeowner with questions can call a housing advisor, call the call center, or e-mail the Sandy Recovery Division and get an answer regarding their status,” she said. “We are continuing to schedule additional information sessions in Sandy-impacted communities to provide personal one-on-one assistance to answer individual questions. “

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