Shore homeowners give N.J. officials an earful

Posted: February 13, 2014

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Jane Peltonen of Brigantine summed up the feelings of dozens of distraught homeowners who leveled harsh criticism at state officials Tuesday, at the first of three hearings on a plan to spend an additional $1.46 billion in federal money.

"Right now, it's a black eye on the state," Peltonen said of the increasingly under-fire grant program for homeowners with damage from Sandy - the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program (RREM).

"The 4,000 or 5,000 people who say the RREM program will solve their problems - they'd better be careful what they wish for," she said.

Although the hearing at Richard Stockton College was supposed to be about the state's new action plan for a second wave of federal money, most speakers wanted to talk about the stalled funding process involving the first round of aid, a process in which they say barely any rebuilding work has taken place.

"It has been an arduous, arduous trial," Georgina Shanley of Ocean City said.

Victoria Phillips of the Atlantic County Long Term Recovery Group said the Sandy recovery office "was like a sleazy car dealership" where victims were pressured to take deals or lose out.

Speaking directly to embattled Community Affairs Commissioner Richard E. Constable III, Shanley said: "Is the purpose of your organization to assist people or to make us into adversaries so you don't have to pay compensation?"

Constable did not respond. He attended Tuesday's hearing along with eight other Christie administration officials. They gave initial presentations but mostly declined to answer or respond to comments.

Mark Ferzan, the executive director of the governor's Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, said the state was hamstrung by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations. "If we do not comply with federal law, they will de-obligate us," he said.

Constable's programs are under fire for erroneously denying thousands of homeowners eligibility, 80 percent of whom were later approved on appeal. The state also fired the contractor administering the program.

Constable, who previously blamed data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the denials, Tuesday blamed HUD regulations that called for using the FEMA data. FEMA says those damage assessments were preliminary and improperly used to establish rebuilding needs.

Constable was also the focus of a legislative committee meeting earlier Tuesday in Trenton, during which housing advocates hammered at the Christie administration for its handling of the distribution of funding.

State Sen. Robert M. Gordon (D., Bergen), chairman of the committee, said it was trying to determine why only an estimated one-quarter of the $800 million in federal housing money has been distributed.

Members of the committee openly criticized the Christie administration for its handling of the recovery effort, saying there had been a lack of transparency as well as mismanagement. They said they would draft a letter to Constable asking him why so many applications for funding had been rejected.

"I think we owe it to our constituency to pursue this and find out why this is happening," said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen).

Constable had been invited to the hearing but declined, citing scheduling conflicts.

At the Stockton hearing, Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club was one of the few people to address the second round of funding, of which $390 million will go back into the RREM program and about $535 million will go toward the state's transportation, energy, and water infrastructure systems. Environmental Commissioner Bob Martin said the state has $17 billion in unmet infrastructure needs.

Tittel said the state's failure to take climate change and rising sea levels into account was responsible for a lower level of funding than New York's, and could jeopardize future funding.

But most at the hearing wanted to talk about current issues. "We can't get loans to do this work, because our homes have no value," Cheryl Schwartz of Ventnor said.

Peltonen said Brigantine had barely seen any rebuilding from the RREM program. Approved for a grant, Peltonen said, she has been waiting nine months for a state-approved contractor to conduct required reviews.

"Obama and Christie came two days after the storm and said help is on the way," she said. "We're still waiting."

The DCA says about 5,100 Sandy-impacted homeowners have been preliminarily approved for a RREM award. There have also been grant signings with 1,200 RREM applicants, obligating more than $137 million in grant assistance, including $25 million in reimbursements for rebuilding work already completed.

But homeowners told stories of those grants being stuck in a seemingly endless pipeline of review processes. One man said the process was more stressful than his time fighting in Afghanistan.

Steven Fenichel of Ocean City said he had been fought by Department of Community Affairs attorneys even after an administrative law judge overturned an initial denial. "Is there a sincere interest in helping someone?" he said.

Carlo Guardascione of Lavallette and others described a "dead zone" in which people like his parents had been told not to rebuild pending their grant applications.

At both hearings, the staffers hired to administer the plan were described as ill-trained and unable to perform basic tasks to administer the programs.

Staci Berger of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey said her agency had filed an request under the state's Open Public Records Act to have the DCA make public information about hiring and training of staff to replace the contractor Hammerman & Gainer, which was fired last month from its $68 million contract.

Frank Argote-Freyre, president of the Latino Action Network, testified that a Spanish-language website set up by the state to aid Sandy victims was "riddled with errors and misinformation," and missing information about appealing denials. "I wish these were just isolated incidents, but they are part of a much broader trend," Argote-Freyre said.

The hearing in Galloway ended with some people who were not given an opportunity to speak yelling from the audience. "We just wanted to be heard," they shouted from the rafters. "Thanks for a whole lot of nothing."

609-823-0453 @amysrosenberg

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