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All posts in 2017

13 Jan 2017

House raising, booming since Sandy, a dangerous and expensive industry

    • Property owners along New Jersey’s coast have had their homes raised to avoid flood waters like those that damaged homes during Hurricane Sandy.

      But the home-elevation industry, which became a booming business after the 2012 storm, is wrought with problems, ranging from safety issues to funding delays that put projects on hold and left some homes literally up in the air.

      Before October 2012, home elevation was a niche business, said Steve Hauck, owner of SJ Hauck House Movers in Egg Harbor Township.

      The industry has since swelled, buoyed by federal money and stricter regulations on properties near the water, but house lifting is a dangerous, expensive and cumbersome process.

      Just last month, one of Hauck’s employees, Jonathan Fitzick, 24, of Ocean City, was seriously injured after a house he was lifting in Wildwood partially collapsed.

      The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the accident, which left Fitzick with a broken leg and head cuts.

      In 2013, OSHA fined a contractor $8,000 for three serious violations after three workers were injured when a house collapsed in Little Egg Harbor Township.

      “It’s definitely safety-sensitive work,” said Tre McAllister, owner of another home elevation contractor, McAllister Building Group in Somers Point. “The insurance that we have to have is so expensive, so that says it all.”

      Another obstacle for contractors and homeowners is dealing with the state agencies that process the federal money allocated for home elevation projects.

      McAllister said about 70 percent of house lifting projects his company does are related to Sandy recovery, and thus eligible for funding through state programs, such as the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program.

      Dealing with the program, which is managed by the state Department of Community Affairs, is “awful, absolutely awful,” said McAllister, because of delayed payments and red tape.

      “It’s hard to function as a contractor when you can’t get paid,” said Hauck, who said his company has lifted more than 1,000 homes since Sandy.

      “The way the program was designed — I don’t think it worked the way they envisioned it to work,” he added.

      Susan Marticek agrees. She works with residents affected by the storm as executive director of the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group.

      “The state grant was never set up to be the major part of people’s budget,” Marticek said.

      Some homeowners get stuck with their properties hoisted on cribbing for weeks or months, waiting for money to come in and work to be completed.

      “They get stuck in their recovery, and they don’t have enough money to finish their project,” Marticek said. “We’re now in year five, and, for a lot of people, they’re at a breaking point.”

      “I’m fearful we will have a lot of projects that were started but not completed,” she added.

      She also wonders about the safety of having houses on cribbing for long periods of time. Last year, a house on cribbing in Long Island tumbled over while the homeowner was waiting for funding to finish a home elevation project.

      “Your house is very vulnerable when it’s up on that cribbing,” Maticek said. “With the bad storms, everybody gets a little nervous.”

      The application period for RREM ended in 2013, but 2,622 homes are still in the process of being elevated, said Lisa Ryan, strategic communications director for the Sandy Recovery Division of Community Affairs.

      Nearly 2,000 of those remaining projects are in Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May counties.

      “DCA is diligently working to help each of the remaining applicants complete construction and close out of the program,” Ryan wrote in an email to the Press of Atlantic City, adding the department regularly provides support to those enrolled in the program.

      So far, about $336 million has been spent through the program on completing more than 4,000 home-elevation projects.

      McAllister said the state is not always to blame for stalled construction. Sometimes, contractors misuse funds, or homeowners are paid by the state but don’t use the money to pay their contractors, he said.

      Marticek suggested inexperience with major storms may be to blame for problems with house lifting.

      “To me, this is New Jersey’s first time at the rodeo,” she said.

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12 Jan 2017

Kane In Your Corner: FEMA clawbacks an added insult to Superstorm Sandy victims

UNION BEACH – Thousands of New Jersey families, their homes damaged or destroyed by Sandy, are now being ordered to repay part of their disaster assistance grants and a Kane In Your Corner investigation Wednesday found the rules determining the paybacks sometimes don’t seem fair. But homeowner advocates say those who get recoupment letters should not automatically repay and sometimes can keep the disputed funds.

Pat Weber’s home in Union Beach looks fine today, but it was a muddy mess immediately after Sandy, flooded by 4 feet of water. With the help of a Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) grant, Weber was able to repair and elevate her home. But in October, the state, acting on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sent her a letter demanding repayment of $32,000 in grant funds. The primary issue: Weber had qualified for “increased cost of compliance” flood insurance, which the government considers a “duplication of benefits.”

Weber considers the clawback unfair. “I paid for [the coverage] for 32 years on [my] flood insurance,” she says, adding that without the ICC funds, “I would not have been able to complete the job.”

It’s a similar story to the one told by Fred Schaffer, of Little Egg Harbor, now being ordered to repay $115,000 in RREM funds. In addition to the grant, he took out a loan from the Small Business Administration. Like Weber, Schaffer insists he needed both to get back in his home.

If that’s true, and both Weber and Schaffer can prove it, they may be able to successfully dispute the clawback effort, federal officials say.

“We’re required to do a duplication-of-benefits check,” FEMA spokesman Bill MacDonald explains. “To make sure there are not two funding sources paying for the same thing.” However, MacDonald says, if a family “can provide receipts that there was no duplication of benefits, then that money would not be recouped.”

Homeowner advocates say many of the issues could have been prevented if federal officials had simply communicated from the beginning.

Many Sandy homeowners “did everything right in life,” says Sue Marticek of the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group. “They lived, they paid their taxes, their insurance, their flood insurance for decades, and here they are, not able to get through because of the real disaster, and the real disaster is the bureaucracy that happened after.”

Weber, for example, received a RREM grant of only $120,000, less than the maximum. She might have been able to avert the recoupment effort if, instead of accepting $30,000 in supplemental flood insurance, she had simply applied for more grant money.

FEMA’s McDonald admits communication could have been better. “That is a lesson learned,” he says. “We are going to have to improve our outreach”.

But homeowners still take issue with a system in which the government hands out assistance and then asks for it back. “I did what they told me to do,” Weber says. “I should be finished.”

11 Jan 2017

Kane In Your Corner: Superstorm Sandy victims told to repay federal grant money

January 11, 2017 8:05 PM

LITTLE EGG HARBOR – Some New Jersey homeowners are being ordered to repay tens of thousands of dollars in Sandy grant money after they accepted government-backed loans that the Federal Emergency Management Agency encouraged them to apply for, and a FEMA spokesman promises Kane In Your Corner the agency will work harder to ensure that homeowners understand the often-confusing rules.

Fred and Marjorie Schaffer’s home in Little Egg Harbor was damaged so badly during Sandy that it could not be saved. Thanks in part to a $150,000 Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) grant, they were able to move into a new modular home. When the work was finished, the state of New Jersey even listed the family as a “success story” on its Sandy Recovery website.

But Fred Schaffer doesn’t feel like his story is much of a success. The state recently sent him a letter, on behalf of FEMA, demanding that he repay $115,000 of his RREM grant. Schaffer also accepted a loan from the Small Business Administration, which the federal government considers a “duplication of benefits.” The rules are intended to make sure homeowners only get the help they need and don’t profit from disaster relief, but Schaffer doesn’t understand why they apply to him.

“How can it be a duplication of benefits?” he wonders. “I didn’t get (the SBA loan) for free. I’m paying it back every month for the next 30 years.”

Sue Marticek with the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group says she’s heard the same complaint from many homeowners. “Many don’t understand to this day how getting a loan from the SBA is considered a duplication of benefits,” she says.

Some homeowners are also upset because they believed they were just doing what FEMA wanted. In the weeks after the storm, FEMA personnel around the state advised Sandy victims to fill out SBA loan applications. FEMA spokesman Bill MacDonald says the advice was good, since the applications also served as the first step in the grant process. He says, unfortunately, some homeowners were either not told or did not understand that if they actually accepted a loan, the proceeds would count against any future grant money.

“I understand that is confusing to people,” MacDonald says, adding that FEMA understands “we are going to have to improve our outreach.”

For Fred Schaffer, now having to repay $115,000 in grant money, that’s not much comfort.

On Thursday, Kane In Your Corner takes a closer look at “duplication of benefit” rules and what a homeowner can do when a recoupment letter arrives.