Sandy relief not flowing to many, agencies say

Posted: November 14, 2013

More than a year after three feet of water deluged her home in the Merion Park section of Ocean City, N.J., during Sandy, year-round resident Kathleen Givens is still living in a borrowed house.

Tiny payouts from private flood and homeowners insurance policies have finally begun to trickle in, but none of it is enough to pay the $60,000 it will cost to lift her Cape May County house onto pilings now required if she is ever to obtain insurance again, or pay the close to $200,000 it will cost to repair the storm-ravaged structure. Or repay relatives for the use of their vacation home while Givens and her family figure out their next move.

"After all this time, nobody can give me any answers about where all the money that was supposed to be helping people like me has gone. . . . Where does all that money go?" wondered Givens after public interest organizations released data Tuesday showing that only a fraction of the $1.16 billion in disaster aid federally allocated to help homeowners and renters in New Jersey return to their homes has been dispersed.

The Fair Share Housing Center and the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey said data obtained from the Christie administration through a lawsuit show that only about $263 million in disaster relief - about 24 percent - received by the state last spring had been distributed. A state spokesman said Tuesday that New Jersey had distributed more than a third of the money.

The housing agencies, which work to create affordable housing for New Jersey residents, found that of the $780 million that had been set aside specifically for homeowners, $117 million, or about 15 percent, had been distributed, and that of $330 million allocated for renter programs, $158 million, or 48 percent, had been dispersed.

Whose fault is it?

The Christie administration previously had pointed to the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the delay, but the federal agency said it approved an action plan for the funding months ago, according to the housing agencies' review of the data.

"Too many of our neighbors are still couch-surfing or struggling to live in homes that need to be repaired. They deserve better," said Staci Berger, executive director of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. "The money has been allocated through programs that had prior approval of the federal government. We don't understand why the Christie administration is not releasing the funds."

Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, on Tuesday would not comment and referred questions about the housing agency's findings to the state Department of Community Affairs.

Via e-mail, a DCA spokeswoman blamed "congressional inaction" and "strict" federal requirements for the funding delays.

"We've always said that congressional inaction on the front end of approving the disaster recovery funds would lead to delays on the back end," DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan wrote. "In the six months since the federal money first started arriving in New Jersey in May, we've already moved more than a third of the housing recovery funds out the door.

"We understand that help can't come fast enough for the many Sandy-impacted families whose lives still aren't back to normal, but we want to assure New Jersey residents that we are working every day to get housing recovery assistance to people who need it," Ryan wrote.

Call for transparency

Those assurances haven't been enough for some housing advocates, who contend the state hasn't been transparent enough with how the funds are being spent.

"We have been concerned from the outset about relief funds being distributed fairly," said Adam Gordon, staff attorney for Fair Share Housing in Cherry Hill, which obtained the data about the Sandy relief funds via a legal proceeding his organization brought against the Christie administration.

"Unfortunately, the Christie administration did not respond to our request for information explaining the rules for who gets funds and who does not. After 45 days, we brought the lawsuit because we simply could not explain to those forced from their homes why they should continue to wait for this very basic information," Gordon said.

Some lawmakers are fed up with both the federal and state governments' inaction on getting the funding to those in need.

"Now we find out that less than a quarter of the [housing] funds allocated for housing programs have been awarded by the State of New Jersey as families struggle to rebuild. It's time for the state to make a more concerted effort to get the funds to families that desperately need them," said U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D., N.J.).

But it won't come soon enough for storm victims like Givens.

"A terrible strain has been put on our family both financially and emotionally," Givens said. "And the longer all this takes to get settled, the worse it gets."

Anita Walsh, a lifelong Atlantic City resident who was unable to move back into the apartment she rented in the Back Maryland section after the storm, agrees.

"Unless you've been through this, you can't understand what we've been through. . . . It's been hell," said Walsh, who has lived apart from two of her three teenage children for a year because the family has been unable to find an affordable place large enough for the entire family. "Nobody should have to be separated from their children because of a storm."




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