The state Department of Community Affairs came under criticism once again yesterday for being too slow to disburse federal money to help residents rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
In an annual appearance before the Assembly Budget Committee over the administration’s proposed spending plan that would go into effect July 1, DCA Commissioner Charles Richman was asked why as much as $1 billion in federal aid had yet to be distributed to applicants seeking to resettle.
With thousands of residents still not back in their homes as the fifth anniversary of the storm approaches in October, the delays encountered by homeowners seeking assistance to rebuild has been a recurring complaint at various legislative hearings.
Noting that the department’s own website indicates over $1 billion has yet to reach residents, Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) questioned how that could be. “That’s an enormous amount,’’ Singleton said.
Richman defended the state’s record and told the panel that 76 percent of available federal grants have been distributed to homeowners, 97 percent of which have drawn down funds. “I’m absolutely certain — absolutely certain — that in dealing with homeowners, 76 percent of the funds have been disbursed,’’ he said.
“We’ve seen an exponential increase in families relocating to their homes,’’ Richman said, indicating that 1,000 families have moved back in the past five months.
The delays that have occurred are largely a result of two factors, Richman said. One factor is the timing and allocation of aid by the federal government in three separate grants, the most recent coming in spring 2015. The other factor is that the state does not disburse aid to build multifamily units until the projects are complete, a process that typically takes two years at best.
“That seems an inordinate amount of time to get these projects built,’’ Singleton replied. He noted that there are still 7,800 homeowners whose projects are not complete. “To clear that pipeline, it will take roughly three years and months.’’
Richman, however, claimed that most of those projects are moving into their final phase, projecting that the overwhelming majority will be completed in the next year and a half. There are 1,000 families still on rental assistance after being dislocated by the storm.
Legislators remained skeptical. “It takes four and a half years and a billion dollars is still outstanding and we’re pleased?’’ asked Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), the chairman of the committee.
“I think we’ve made substantial progress, but I won’t be satisfied until the last homeowner is back in their home,’’ Richman replied.