A grassroots Latino advocacy organization on Tuesday filed an official complaint accusing the Christie administration of not giving Spanish-speaking residents equal access to information and federal dollars when it comes to Sandy aid.
Citing U.S. Housing and Urban Development regulations governing $1.8 billion in Sandy relief money, the New Jersey-based Latino Action Network filed a complaint with state Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable charging that the state is not complying with its obligation to ensure “that recovery programs be equally accessible to persons who have limited English proficiency as to English proficient applicants.”
"The Christie administration is in direct conflict with federal law,” said the group’s president, Frank Argote-Freyre. “Governor Christie is responsible for violating the basic civil rights of thousands of New Jersey residents already struggling to rebuild.”
Specifically, Argote-Freyre charged in his written complaint that the state did not tell Spanish speakers they could appeal denial of funds from the major Sandy relief programs for home owners. For instance, the state’s English language website has a link to the appeals process, while the Spanish-language version does not. (See accompanying screenshots from the two websites).
The disparity in information included details – or a lack of details -- about the Homeowner Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program, which is providing up to $150,000 in grants to repair a primary residence, and a smaller $10,000 resettlement grant program.
The state also allegedly did not keep Spanish speakers updated on the dates and times that local housing resource offices would be open and did not give the proper address in Essex County when that office was relocated.
Overall, the complaint states that "Renew New Jersey Stronger" program’s www.renewjerseystronger.org website pages “fail to provide critical and legally mandated documents, forms and other information to Spanish speakers in the language in which they are proficient.”
Mayra Ramirez, director of administration of the Ironbound Community Corp., said many residents have had problems applying for grants and that those problems were magnified for those for whom English is not the primary language.
“Help wasn’t there for them,” said Christian Estevez, LAN vice president, adding the administration did little outreach into Latino communities. “It’s almost like they purposely went out of their way to make it hard work for Latino families or anyone who does not speak English … We are seeing (grant) denial rates that are higher in places where there are large Latino populations.”
The complaint comes less than a month after Fair Share Housing Center, a Cherry Hill-based organization, sued the administration seeking detailed information about how the state has administered its largest housing-grant programs, two of which are supposed to provide a majority of funds to low- and moderate-income individuals and families. The center has expressed concern over the approval rates for the RREM program in communities in Bergen and Hudson counties that have higher Hispanic populations. Fewer low- and moderate-income home owners qualified for grants in those areas while more higher income residents got grants than in other areas.
One area that has suffered is Newark’s Ironbound, where the ICC has been trying to help about 250 families whose homes near the Passaic River were damaged by flooding during Sandy. Some had to be rescued through second-floor windows when flood waters rose six feet. Many have been unable to return to their homes; some will never be able to do so.
“People have had to borrow from their pension savings, take loans from friends and family members, without a doubt we are sure there are people out there who would be homeless without our help,” Ramirez said. “Some people are homeless. Some won’t be able to go back to their homes because they have been foreclosed on since the storm.”
Lisa Ryan, a DCA spokeswoman, said the state has been trying to help all those affected by the storm and will look into the complaint.
“We are working hard to accommodate our Spanish-speaking residents who have been trying to access the many programs available for those impacted by Sandy,” she said. “We are looking into the issues raised by this group, and if there are areas that need to be addressed, we will take action immediately.”
Estevez said DCA has until Oct. 23 to respond to the complaint. After that date, the network can appeal to HUD.
A call to HUD went unanswered, probably due to the continuing federal government shutdown.
According to LAN, federal law requires the state to provide equal access in English and Spanish to information regarding its Sandy recovery programs.
“The state’s webpages that provide information about and access to assistance under the Plan do not contain the same information for Spanish speakers as for English speakers,” according to the complaint. As proof, LAN offered several examples from the ReNew Jersey Stronger site, which has English and Spanish pages:
•page, included a link to a page with information explaining how to appeal a denial of eligibility and a worksheet for filing an appeal. The http://es.renewjerseystronger.org/rrem/Spanish language page did not include an “Appeals” link. Similarly, the omits the “How Reimbursement Works” link available on the English-language page. The FAQs pages in English and Spanish are also significantly different: the English-language version covers 50 points, with number 19 being “How do I appeal the decision that I am ineligible?” while the Spanish-language version covers only 30 points and does not mention an appeal.
• The application deadline for the housing programs was August 1. This information was provided in English at http://www.renewjerseystronger.org/rrem/what-can-i-expect/, but not in Spanish at http://es.renewjerseystronger.org/rrem/que-puedo-esperar/.
• When the state changed the location of the Essex County housing office from Halsey Street in Newark, with a weekend office on Washington Street, to Gateway Center, it was included at http://www.renewjerseystronger.org/rrem/contact-us/, but the information was not updated on its Spanish language website, http://es.renewjerseystronger.org/rrem/contact-us/. Similarly, the English language website provided updated times that local housing resource offices would be open, but the Spanish language page did not provide that information.
“It is neither fair nor legal for his administration to mislead the Latino community in this way,” said Argote-Freyre.
Fair Share attorney Adam Gordon said the complaint is only the most recent example of the administration’s lack of concern for Latinos hurt by Sandy.
“This builds on a past history of not making the plan for spending money available in Spanish and under-allocating funding for Latino renters,” he said. “Whether the problem derives from malice or neglect makes no difference; the Latino community deserves better.”
According to Estevez, New Jersey previously violated federal law in failing to provide a Spanish-language version of its Sandy rebuilding plan and how it would spend $1.8 billion in federal funds. The administration was ordered to modify the rebuilding plan to offer all key application documents in both English and Spanish, which it has failed to do. The complaint seeks full compliance with those requirements and federal law to ensure that all people who were misled in the initial process have an opportunity to receive grants.
The group’s complaint asks DCA to acknowledge its violations, including through Spanish media and direct contact with Spanish speakers; to extend all funding deadlines for those who may have been discriminated against and prioritize their applications as if they had not missed the deadline; to correct all violations and to appoint a monitor to ensure future compliance in providing information to Spanish speakers.