Amid Christie scandal, Sandy relief funds released

Posted: January 16, 2014

The release Tuesday of $145 million in long-awaited funds - money that could help as many as 2,000 New Jersey Shore families impacted by Hurricane Sandy finally return to their homes - was announced amid a federal review into whether Gov. Christie misspent relief funds on a controversial tourism campaign.

The state received approval from the Obama administration to amend the New Jersey Disaster Relief Recovery Action Plan to move additional money from existing federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds into two Sandy recovery housing programs. Previous codes written into the acts prevented the funds from being used to aid wait-listed homeowners in two separate resettlement programs.

Thanks to federal and state funding gridlock, nearly 15 months after Sandy created $38 billion in damage in New Jersey, tens of thousands of residents of the state's shoreline counties are still awaiting the aid of grants, loans, and insurance payments that could allow them to return to homes damaged by the storm.

The Christie administration says it requested the formula change so $110 million could be added to the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation Program (RREM). That program will give 1,000 homeowners grants up to $150,000 to rebuild or repair their homes. Officials said some homeowners on the RREM waiting list should receive letters "shortly," notifying them that they have been preliminarily approved for the grant and advising them of the next steps to take.

The approximately 7,000 homeowners who remain on the waiting list will be advised of their ranking on that list, so they can decide their own plans, officials said.

Thousands more who did not apply for aid, or are hoping to collect on their insurance premiums, remain uncounted by the state Department of Community Affairs, which has released no firm numbers on just how many year-round Shore residents remain homeless.

The amendment announced Tuesday also adds $35 million to the Homeowner Resettlement Program, which enables the state to fully fund the application of all homeowners, about 1,200, who asked for up to $10,000 in grant money meant as an incentive for them to remain in their home community instead of relocating. The money is to be used for nonconstruction storm-related expenses, including increased flood insurance premiums and rental payments for temporary housing.

"Helping Sandy-impacted families get back in their homes is a top priority for my administration," Christie said in a statement. "Receiving approval of our request to dedicate additional funds to help thousands of New Jersey residents get the needed resources to resettle in their neighborhoods and rebuild their homes is critical to this mission."

Staci Berger, executive director of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said she was less concerned about the timing of the release of the funding on Tuesday, one day after federal officials announced they were looking into whether the Christie administration misspent Sandy relief funds on the tourism ads that featured the governor and his family during an election year. Berger said she was more focused on its inadequacy at returning to their homes the thousands of Shore residents who remain displaced by the storm.

"Out of a $6 billion pile of resources, this is not a huge amount of money," said Berger. "We had hoped it would be more, but it will certainly be a help to some people."

Berger's agency has spent the months since Sandy helping displaced lower- and middle-income families locate new homes or find the funding to help them rebuild their old ones.

But the disaster made an already tight New Jersey housing market even more constricted, according to Berger. New Jersey continues to be among states with the highest unemployment rates and is one of the most expensive places to rent or own a home.

"Those are two lists that you don't want to be near the top of," said Berger. "We need better housing policies that create more homes people can afford, so there is a greater supply and more choices for New Jerseyans. Sandy made an already difficult housing situation much worse."



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