Next Wave of Nearly $1.5 Billion in Federal Recovery Aid Heading to New Jersey

Scott Gurian | June 2, 2014 | Sandy
Partisan bickering continues in Trenton over Sandy Bill of Rights vetoed by Christie

As New Jersey residents and business owners up and down the coast continue to put their lives and livelihoods back together, more than a year and a half after Sandy, federal officials have signaled that more help is on its way.

A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spokesman says the federal government has approved the state’s plan for spending its second batch of $1.46 billion in Community Development Block Grant funding. Officials also say New Jersey will receive an additional $882 million in a third round of funding, expected sometime this summer.

The news isn’t all positive, however. Over 40 percent of what’s expected to be the final batch of funding is earmarked for a resiliency design competition rather than paying for the state’s ongoing repair and storm mitigation needs.

Meanwhile, lawmakers critical of the Christie administration’s handling of the Sandy recovery are gearing up for a fight following the governor’s recent veto of the Sandy Bill of Rights.

And a civil-rights settlement reached with several advocacy groups will require increased aid money and resources for low-income and non-English speaking storm victims after the administration was faulted for inadequate outreach in the recovery process.

HUD’s approval on Friday of New Jersey’s spending plan for the second wave of federal Sandy funding comes two months after the state submitted it, following a 30-day comment period and a whirlwind series of public hearings.

The plan had come under some criticism for not focusing enough on the threats of sea-level rise and climate change, as well as for maintaining a focus on funding ongoing housing needs, in seeming defiance of federal guidelines, which called for increased emphasis on infrastructure resiliency measures.

It’s unclear if the feds have asked the state to make any revisions to its plan, but Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable said last week that he didn’t expect he’d have to change much.

Federal officials also announced the state will receive nearly $900 million more in the coming months, confirming figures leaked to the press a week earlier. In a statement, Christie said the funding “will enable New Jersey to continue to prioritize our housing needs for Sandy-affected families, including clearing the RREM wait list and providing significant additional resources for renters.”

This third round of funding from HUD brings New Jersey’s total to nearly $4.2 billion since the storm, but even after it’s spent, the state estimates that nearly $17 billion will remain in unmet needs for housing, economic development and infrastructure.

In addition, the state will be required to spend $380 million of this next installment of aid to fund the winning proposals for Rebuild by Design, an infrastructure design competition to make New Jersey’s coast more resilient in future storms. Christie and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan will announce the winners at a press conference in Little Ferry this afternoon.

The move comes as a bit of a surprise, as many had expected that Rebuild by Design would get its own, separate allocation, possibly from the over $1 billion that remains of the $15.2 billion of emergency funding that Congress approved in the aftermath of Sandy.

It remains to be seen what will now become of that leftover money. Political leaders throughout the region are pushing for it to be used on the Sandy recovery, but the feds have suggested they may divert it to other disasters.

In other Sandy news, partisan bickering came to a head late last week, as state lawmakers prepped for an upcoming vote whether to override the governor’s conditional veto of Senate President Sweeney’s Sandy Bill of Rights.

The measure would simplify the application process for Sandy recovery programs, require “plain language” explanations to storm survivors of their status, and give people greater rights to appeal if they’re denied funding. It passed the Legislature with unanimous support from members of both parties, but Christie said it would be “impossible to implement” and could be in violation of several state and federal laws.

In the wake of the veto, Republicans have reversed course, with Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union) now saying his party will side with the governor, denying Sweeney the three Republican votes needed to pass his bill into law.

Sweeney fought back on Friday, calling members of the opposing party cowards. “We all know what this is. They’re afraid of the governor,” he said in an interview. “Just call it what it is. You don’t have the guts to stand up for the people.”

Republicans responded that Christie’s conditional veto raised valid concerns, and they said Sweeney should meet with the governor’s counsel to work out the differences and reach a compromise. Sweeney – who’s rumored to be considering a run for governor in 2017 – has not indicated that he’s willing to cede any ground.

In one final development, the Christie administration has reached a settlement with Fair Share Housing, the Latino Action Network and the NJ NAACP, who jointly filed a civil rights complaint last year with HUD that the state had “engaged in discriminatory housing practices” and “failed to affirmatively further fair housing” in its handling of the Sandy recovery.

As part of the voluntary agreement, the state says it will provide an additional $215 million to rebuild damaged homes and will re-review the paperwork of all applicants who were initially denied funding through the RREM program, which offers grants of up to $150,000 to repair, elevate or rebuild people’s primary homes. It also pledged to increase resources available to low-income renters and non-English speakers still recovering from the storm, to comply with Open Public Records Act requests related to Sandy in a more timely fashion, and to provide more public information to ensure that Sandy funds are being distributed equitably.

“Working together, we have been steadfast in ensuring that the largest amount by far of Sandy housing recovery aid reaches those most in need, and we’ve already devoted the majority of housing grants to low- and moderate-income families,” Christie said in a statement, spinning the settlement in a positive light. “We can now take that commitment even farther, by bolstering our outreach, providing additional resources for both renters and low- and moderate-income homeowners, and incorporating feedback from housing advocates.”