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Mortgage Relief for NJ Homeowners Still Dealing with Sandy Damage

Thousands of victims of the superstorm are paying rent on temporary housing while struggling to make their mortgage payments

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More than four years after Hurricane Sandy devastated many communities in New Jersey, especially at the Shore, lawmakers estimate that thousands of people are still not back in their damaged homes. That means many are juggling rent for their temporary living quarters while paying the mortgage on their under-repair homes.

To keep those and other Sandy victims from losing their homes to foreclosure while the repairs are still underway, lawmakers have sent a bill to Gov. Chris Christie that would allow them to qualify for a forbearance that could last until mid-2019.

The bipartisan measure would also require the state Department of Community Affairs to inform court officials and mortgage lenders about the foreclosure-protection effort and publicize information about who would be eligible on the department’s website. The Sandy victims themselves would also have to be notified, and transparency and appeals procedures for state assistance programs would also have to be improved, according to the bill.

The legislation easily passed the Senate on Monday, and it was already approved by the Assembly in June. Lawmakers from both parties praised its advancement to Christie’s desk this week, and they said it’s the least that can be done for many Sandy victims who’ve been delayed by the government’s own bureaucratic shortcomings. The bill, meanwhile, has also drawn praise from advocates for Sandy victims, and they’re now urging the governor to sign the measure as soon as possible.

Hurricane Sandy delivered a direct hit to New Jersey on October 29, 2012, bringing 80 mile-per-hour winds and a massive storm surge to counties at the Shore and to parts of northern New Jersey as well. In its aftermath, nearly 350,000 homes were damaged or outright destroyed, according to official estimates.

Christie, then in his first term, won praise and watched his poll numbers soar in the wake of the storm as he led the state’s recovery effort. But he’s also faced criticism from victims as the recovery effort has dragged on, especially from those still struggling to get back in their homes.

When the storm’s four-year anniversary was recognized earlier this year, Christie said there were approximately 7,600 storm victims actively participating in the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation Program, which is the state’s largest Sandy recovery grant program. More than $850 million in aid had been disbursed and construction completed on about 4,300 homes, Christie said at the time. Another 1,400 owners were back in their homes while work was still being completed, he said.

But Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), a primary sponsor of the foreclosure-protection bill, said there are still as many as 3,200 storm victims who have yet to complete construction on their Sandy recovery projects.

The foreclosure-protection legislation would provide those victims with a forbearance that would last for one year beyond the date of their receipt of a certificate of occupancy or until July 1, 2019, whichever comes first. To qualify, a victim must have received rental assistance from FEMA or assistance through RREM or the state's low-to-moderate income program. They would still have to pay property taxes and insurance and cover general property maintenance costs during the forbearance period, according to the bill.

“Providing a pathway to prevent foreclosure will protect families who are struggling to fund both a mortgage and rent from losing the very home they have spent years trying to rebuild,” said Beck. “It’s the right thing to do, and I look forward to seeing the bill signed into law as swiftly as possible.”

Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union) said the delays that many victims are facing were not caused by their own mistakes.

“We need to put provisions in place that will help protect residents affected by Sandy who are still trying to rebuild but keep getting tangled up in governmental red-tape," said Quijano, another primary sponsor of the bill.

Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said her organization supports the bill as a short-term solution for those still trying to recover from Sandy.

“Sandy survivors have waited a long time for this, many have already lost their homes to foreclosure,” said Berger, whose organization represents more than 250 community development corporations, individuals and other groups across the state that support affordable housing and economic opportunity.

“This bill is an opportunity to provide some immediate relief and avoid making New Jersey’s foreclosure crisis even worse,” she said. “We encourage Gov. Christie to sign this bill without further delay.”

In addition to establishing the foreclosure protections and the new forbearance-notification requirements, the bill also calls for improved transparency and appeals procedures for RREM and other assistance programs, including the Low to Moderate Income Homeowners Rebuilding and Tenant-Based Rental Assistance programs.

For example, the bill would require the DCA to publicly state reasons for each denial of an application or placement on a waiting list, and for withdrawals from the programs since they were launched. Public reporting would also have to occur through 2018.

“It is inexcusable that the same governmental snags that have kept Sandy victims from rebuilding now threaten their homes,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex). "These provisions can help these residents stay afloat while they wait for the powers that be to get it right once and for all.”

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