Four years ago Saturday, Superstorm Sandy barreled into New Jersey.
For some, the storm isn’t over yet. And for others, another wave may be coming in the form of increased property taxes.
Still-displaced homeowners took their grievances to an Assembly committee Thursday, which heard more than two hours of testimony that suggested the headaches they’ve dealt with – insufficient flood insurance payouts, unresponsive state recovery programs, unscrupulous contractors – still persist.
“Thousands of New Jersey families are not home yet,” said Doug Quinn, who is among them. “Most people have gone on with their lives. They think it’s over: ‘Sandy? Oh, that’s done.’ But for a lot of us, we still live in this every single days of our lives.”
“You have to understand how these people have lived, what it likes to live like a refugee for all these years,” Quinn said.
In some cases, the old problems been joined by new crises – foreclosures and clawbacks, the latter in which the state is demanding repayment for what it says are duplicative benefits.
Julie Suarez said she got back into her home in June 2015, then got a letter from the Department of Community Affairs demanding that around $50,000 be repaid within 30 days. She doesn’t have that money, says she followed the state rules and hasn’t gotten a clear answer why money must be repaid.
“I feel like my world has been in a chaotic spiral since October 29, 2012,” said Suarez, who said she’s on the brink of foreclosure and asked lawmakers to pass legislation that can give Sandy victims some more breathing room.
Temporary mortgage relief programs have been passed by the Legislature, only to be vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.
“This state is going into disarray with foreclosures, and these people are suffering, and it’s not their fault. They were in the state program. And that is just unfair,” Suarez said. “I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I want you to help me. And I want you to help all of us that are still trying to get home.”
Suarez said another person she knows through the New Jersey Organizing Project has been directed to repay $104,000.
Quinn said legislation is needed, and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, the chairman of the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Reform and Federal Relations Committee, said he is developing a bill.
“The DCA needs to be reined in on this horrible methodology that they do,” Quinn said. “These people need to understand that it’s not their money they’re giving out. They are managing a national resource – our tax money that average, working-class people like myself have paid in. They need to not treat us like we’re criminals. They need to not treat us like we’re asking for favors.”
Many of the complaints were familiar ones about the state’s administration of the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program.
“At best, it’s challenging. At worst, it’s completely inept,” said Susan Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group.
RREM is the largest of the state’s federally funded recovery programs, accounting for more than $1.3 billion in spending of the nearly $4.2 billion received. More than 80 percent of the money has been disbursed to homeowners, said DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan.
However, out of the roughly 7,700 homeowners in the program, only about 700 cases have been fully closed out, said Adam Gordon of the Fair Share Housing Center. Ryan said around 5,700 are back in their homes, including 4,300 who have finished construction and 1,400 living there while work is completed.
That leaves close to 2,000 families in the program still displaced. Almost 5,000 additional homeowners had initially been deemed eligible for the RREM program, then dropped out for one reason or another. While 141 had their homes bought through Blue Acres funds, which are used by the state to acquire flood-prone properties, the others withdrew, either voluntarily or administratively, Gordon said.
“They just gave up. And where are they now? Who knows? There’s no tracking going on. What happened to those families? I mean, this is 40 percent of the people. This is not a small number. Forty percent of the people originally found eligible by the state are gone,” Gordon said.
“Four years later, we still have a lot of work to do,” Gordon said. “I don’t think any of us in October 2012 would have thought that in October 2016 we’d be sitting here hearing these stories today.”
Ryan said the DCA has made constant efforts to streamline the RREM program, such as giving homeowners more flexibility in designing their rebuilding project, and has provided rental assistance programs so people aren’t paying mortgages and rent at the same time.
“We recognize the hardship endured by people who lost so much to Sandy and we recognize there is more work to do. But we have made significant progress in helping households recover from the worst natural disaster in our state’s history,” Ryan said.
Another wave of Sandy’s impacts is on the horizon, Marticek warned.
The state used $136 million of its $4.2 billion in Sandy recovery funds for grants to local governments, to help them maintain services despite having tax ratables destroyed by Sandy.
That program has expired after three years, and the federal government won’t allow more money transferred into it so it can be extended. In some places, that’s going to be mean tax hikes. Toms River, for instance, still has $880 million less in ratables than it did before the storm.
“Wait ‘til the subsidies end,” Marticek said. “Those people that don’t know that Sandy is still going on are going to find out very quickly that even without getting a drop of water in their house, they are going to be dramatically impacted.”
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