At a public meeting on the proposed distribution of Sandy money, Margaret Quinn, a Toms River resident whose home was severely damaged by Sandy, is critical of the way that money is being allocated. STAFF VIDEO BY BOB BIELK STAFF VIDEO BY BOB BIELK
TOMS RIVER – Frances Accardi has been living in an uninsulated travel trailer on her Toms River property since shortly after Superstorm Sandy flooded her ranch home with 5 feet of water, forcing her to have it demolished.
On Tuesday Accardi, who is still trying to rebuild her house, came to a hearing on the state’s plans for $502 million in federal storm aid to beg New Jersey officials to do a better job getting people back home.
“We are reaching out to you because we don’t know which other way to turn,” said Accardi, who lives in Toms River’s Silverton section, which was badly flooded during Sandy. “The people who don’t have a house to live in should be the first to be addressed.”
Accardi was one of dozens of people, including homeowners, advocates and public officials, to speak during a three-hour hearing held by the state Department of Community Affairs at Ocean County College. Over and over again, speakers stressed that the state’s signature rebuilding initiative, the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM), is not working.
Many urged the state to give a portion of the federal storm recovery aid to the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, an umbrella organization of more than 80 nonprofits that has worked to provide money and volunteer labor that helps fill gaps between a homeowners’ resources and the actual cost of rebuilding.
“The RREM program is broken, folks,” said Toms River resident George Kasimos, who started the Sandy advocacy group, Stop FEMA Now. Kasimos and other speakers listed a litany of issues with the program, from often inscrutable rules that frequently change, forms that are often lost and must be continually resubmitted, and poor communication that has resulted in some homeowners being asked to return of portion of grant funds while they are still attempting to complete construction and elevation of their houses.
Accardi initially received $148,000 in grant funds from the RREM program, an amount that was raised to $150,000, the maximum available. But she said $17,700 was deducted from her grant after her home was demolished under a FEMA-funded program Toms River joined. She said state officials had assured her that the money would not be deducted before she agreed to partipcate in the demolition program, but then told her after the fact that the rules had changed.
“I’ve never seen anyplace where you can change the rules as much as you do,” she said.
The Christie administration plans to spend the majority of the $502 million in federal storm recovery aid on restoring homes and expanding a fund that finances thousands of affordable rental units for low- and moderate-income families. This third round of recovery aid is expected to be the last.
More than two years after Sandy severely damaged or destroyed 40,500 primary residences in New Jersey, the state’s primary rebuilding program has managed to complete 328 homes, according to DCA spokeswoman Tammori Petty.
Sue Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, said she fears New Jersey is headed down the same path as Louisiana, where 18,000 homes that received federal grant funds are not in compliance and the federal government is seeking $522 million in repayment from the state, which has chosen not to pursue homeowners for the money.
In many cases Louisiana homes were not elevated as required under the grant because homeowners ran out of money or had funds stolen by unscrupulous contractors, a situation Marticek said is happening in New Jersey.
Marticek has asked the state for $25 million in funding for the long-term recovery group, and said the group’s programs, including assigning homeowners a disaster case manager to walk them through the RREM process, are helping people get home.
Written comments on the state’s plan can be sent via email to email@example.com and via U.S. mail to Jamie Saults, Constituent Services Manager, Sandy Recovery Division, New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, 101 South Broad St., Post Office Box 823, Trenton, NJ 08625-0823.
A second public hearing on the proposal will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 7 at the Moses Center at Bergen Community College in Paramus.
Jean Mikle: (732) 643-4050, firstname.lastname@example.org
The proposed funding allocation for the administration’s recovery programs is:
• $225 million for repairs and mitigation measures for the remaining homes in the state Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program.
• $215 million to expand the rental units program, which is administered by the state’s Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (HMFA). The funds also would help finance the repair or replacement of rental housing units.
• $10 million to the Sandy Special Needs Housing Fund program, which is administered by HMFA and repairs or replaces housing for special needs populations.
• $15 million to provide assistance for up to two years through the Tenant-Based Rental Assistance program to be launched next month. The funds — which are in addition to the $17 million in the second round of federal funds allocated to this program — will increase availability of rental units to low- to moderate-income families and help revitalize impacted communities.
The remaining funds will be dedicated for costs associated with administering recovery programs.
Source: State Department of Community Affairs