NJ’s Plan for Next Batch of Sandy Aid Keeps Focus on Homeowners, Renters

Scott Gurian | March 18, 2014 | Sandy
Critics complain that not enough attention is being paid to making infrastructure less vulnerable

Sandy (building road)
Last March, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced its requirements for New Jersey to receive its first $1.8 billion in Community Development Block Grant funding, the emphasis was on dealing with the immediate storm recovery.

Sandy had made landfall just a few months earlier, and the needs of individual residents and business owners were paramount, so federal officials said the state could spend the money on “necessary expenses related to disaster relief, long-term recovery, restoration of infrastructure and housing, and economic revitalization in the most impacted and distressed areas.” As a result, New Jersey earmarked $1.3 billion — or about 70 percent of its initial allotment — on housing initiatives.

A year later, it’s a different story. Though the needs of homeowners and renters remain great, and stories about people waiting for Sandy aid still seem to appear in the headlines nearly every week, federal officials have signaled a shift in emphasis. In their notice published last November, detailing how New Jersey should spend its second tranche of $1.46 billion, they indicated a desire to move beyond the immediate recovery to instead focus on underlying infrastructure needs to make the state less vulnerable to future storms. That would include investments in mitigation-related measures, regional planning efforts, and the enhancement of natural defenses like beaches, wetlands and dunes.

But the state is not hewing close to the federal recommendations. Most of the Sandy money is still going to housing, a situation that is angering some environmentalists and planning groups.

Overall, the state Department of Community Affairs estimates New Jersey faces about $17.3 billion in unmet needs for infrastructure-related repairs and resiliency measures — out of a total of approximately $19 billion in unmet needs from all sectors combined. Yet the $535 million they’re proposing to spend on infrastructure programs from this tranche of funding is only about a third of the total $1.46 billion they’ll be given. Some advocacy groups are raising questions about whether that’s adequate and whether it will be enough to satisfy the HUD officials who hold the purse strings.

In their draft action plan released early last month, New Jersey officials propose spending $100 million for a Flood Hazard Risk Reduction Program to fund projects and improvements aimed at reducing the effects of storm surges and flooding. Examples of the types of projects to be considered, the plan says, would be clearing debris blocking drainage systems, installing permeable pavement, and constructing flood walls, pump stations, tide gates and berms.
The plan also includes a proposal to create a $210 million Energy Resilience Bank to help quench some of the hundreds of millions of dollars in requests state officials received from municipalities and other entities for backup generators, microgrids, energy storage, and other power supply needs. And there’s a prospective plan to spend another $225 million to match infrastructure-related grants from other federal agencies like FEMA, the EPA, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

But if state officials have their way, the majority of the $1.46 billion would be spent on a variety of other initiatives including:
* $105 million in “Support for Local Government Entities,” including grants for first responders and funding for demolitions and code enforcement

* $10 million earmarked in grants to assist local municipalities in their planning efforts

* $5 million for a tourism marketing campaign to help revitalize damaged shore communities and prevent any backslide from the recovery gains made last summer

* $73 million to administer the distribution of all this money and provide oversight.

By far the largest chunk — accounting for $735 million or about 50 percent of the $1.46 billion – is earmarked for a continuation of the state’s currently existing programs for individual homeowners, renters and developers through five programs: the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) grants, Blue Acres Buyout Program, Fund for Restoration of Multi-Family Housing, Neighborhood Enhancement Program, and Sandy Special Needs Housing Fund.

State officials say the reason they’re continuing to focus the majority of their efforts on housing and rental assistance rather than shifting to infrastructure is because demand for this funding from individual residents has far exceeded available resources, and the waiting lists for many of these programs remain lengthy. “Intuitively, it makes sense” said Marc Ferzan, head of the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, on a call with reporters early last month.

Few would argue that these aren’t worthy goals or that the money isn’t sorely needed by struggling residents of the Jersey Shore. But given the limitations of overall funding, the state’s spending decisions have raised eyebrows among some.

“The plan continues an unfortunate trend of underfunding infrastructure, including transportation, water, and energy,” said Chris Sturm with New Jersey Future, a planning advocacy group that promotes “responsible land-use policies.”

Jeff Tittel, the director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, concurred. “It’s important to make the places that we’re fixing be able to withstand the effects of future storms,” he said. “Unless you have water and sewer systems that work and electric grids that are resilient, you can build back all the houses you want, but no one will be able to live in them.”

“Tensions in policy work are common, and it’s not a surprise that these sorts of tensions exist,” responded Kevin Walsh with the Fair Share Housing Center, a group that’s been working on behalf of low-income homeowners and renters affected by the storm. While acknowledging that infrastructure needs are important, he said he appreciated the fact that the state appears to have prioritized housing, even though he has gripes about many of the specific ways it’s gone about the process.

For his part, Ferzan is defending the Christie administration’s continuing focus on the housing recovery, and he’s downplayed suggestions that federal officials will raise questions about the state’s spending decisions. “At the end of the day, HUD is the ‘Department of Housing and Urban Development,’” he reminded reporters, “so I think they will understand that we are prioritizing getting homeowners and renters back to more permanent housing solutions.”

Ferzan went on to note that he’s been in touch with top HUD officials on a weekly basis, so none of the state’s priorities should come as a surprise to them. “We’ve given them insights as far as what our priorities are, over the course of the last year,” he said, “and how we contemplated breaking down the $1.46 [billion] at a high level.”

“Now the devil’s in the details,” he continued, “so obviously HUD needs a chance to review this [action plan] to make its determinations. But if we could get more for infrastructure without compromising the wait list needs that we have, I’d love to see that.”