Ocean City fight over money for rebuilding public housing

Robert Rowell , 62, pauses from shoveling in Ocean City's Pecks Beach Village. He says the rebuilding project was badly needed. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Robert Rowell , 62, pauses from shoveling in Ocean City's Pecks Beach Village. He says the rebuilding project was badly needed. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Posted: March 06, 2014

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Back in late 2012, the mayor of this beach town looked at the ruined Pecks Beach Village public housing area and did what a lot of private homeowners did - or wanted to do - after Sandy.

"It really came down to, you know, after the storm, the residents were all displaced, in hotels, scattered all over the place," Jay Gillian said. "To see the despair and depression and the devastation these people had gone through - I went to my administration and said, 'Look, guys, we can't wait.' "

So the mayor and the city figured out a way to fix the federally funded homes and get the 60 low-income families back into them as fast as possible, and worried about getting reimbursed for the $1.2 million later.

But a year after families returned to Pecks Beach, Gillian and Ocean City are finding out what many homeowners have learned: Getting the government to pay them back for Sandy work can be tougher - and take longer - than the work itself.

Despite having collected $1.2 million on its federal flood insurance claim, the city's Housing Authority, chaired by local businessman Ed Price, continues to balk at reimbursement.

Price says that the city did not follow Housing and Urban Development guidelines and that appliances do not meet efficiency standards, elevation was not considered, work was not properly bid out, and a final shared-services agreement was never signed.

"We said, great, but you need to understand, we come under HUD," Price said. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

The dispute centers on a mostly-under-the-radar development of low-income and racially mixed public housing near the bay at Fourth Street in a city better known for boardwalk pizza and a revolving door of summer tourists.

Gillian - whose family also owns the town's amusement park - says it was his duty to act to prevent a vulnerable community from being permanently displaced. He calls it "one of the best things I've ever done in my life as far as community work."

The families and seniors of Pecks Beach did return home by February 2013, to new heating and air-conditioning units, new water heaters, rebuilt ground floors, and new kitchens, with money fronted by the city's own affordable-housing pot.

"Now, they're coming up with excuses," Gillian said.

Last Thursday, the Housing Authority board voted to travel to Newark to seek guidance from HUD.

But HUD spokesman Adam Glantz said Tuesday that HUD's only role was to review the shared-services agreement in 2012. He said HUD now considers reimbursement a matter between the city and the authority.

The dispute echoes familiar post-Sandy homeowner angst over whether to proceed with work pending funding, whether completed work is eligible for reimbursement, and whether HUD regulations undermine recovery efforts.

The dispute takes another page out of the current post-Sandy playbook, as Price has announced his intention to challenge Gillian for mayor this year.

Is the Housing Authority's reluctance to reimburse the city with $1.2 million it has already collected from flood insurance a result of politics having a seat at the recovery table?

Price does not deny being a political rival of the mayor, but says the Housing Authority still has to answer to HUD. He says the city did not approve HUD revisions to the agreement and worries about ramifications. "There's no question that the intention was correct," Price said. "Now it could be a bigger mess."

Price and others are now suggesting the mayor steered work to local favorites, like the Broadley plumbing firm, whose owner heads the city's Chamber of Commerce.

Gillian said he appealed to reliable local contractors to submit the lowest possible bids, treating it like an emergency, gathering the community like a boardwalk barn-building.

Price said the city had to follow procedures just like anyone else. "I have friends that still aren't in their home," he said. "But they had to go through the normal channels."

Gillian knows about those channels. He fought for more to secure government help to save his family's new amusement venture in Sea Isle City, wrecked by Sandy. He announced last month that Funland would close.

"I spent 10 grand trying to get grants," Gillian said. "I got devastated down there. It's just so frustrating. Nobody can give you an answer on why it's a no. They keep changing the rules on you."

City Solicitor Dorothy McCrossen said Gillian and the Housing Authority held meetings for residents to advise them of plans for their return, but, she said, "there was no plan."

"They didn't have the ability to do anything quickly," McCrossen said. "Christmas was coming, and these people were literally living in hotel rooms. We were getting notices from FEMA where they were saying the money to keep housing these families in hotels was going to be cut off."

The Housing Authority did not have cash on hand to do the work, and so the city decided to act. Now the city just wants the insurance money.

McCrossen, the solicitor, said the mayor's only motive was keeping his town whole. Tourists walk with their beach chairs all summer long by Pecks Beach, which once was what all of Ocean City was called.

"It'd be like any neighborhood in town and be poof - the residents are gone," she said. "It was something he wasn't going to allow to happen."

At Pecks Beach on Tuesday, residents gave the renovation somewhat mixed reviews (kitchen cabinets have been known to break), but were glad to have gotten back to the mostly two-story vinyl-sided homes with a playground just for tenants. A half-block away on West Avenue, contractors are finishing 12 duplexes priced from $300,000.

Several residents said the looming 2013 summer season was also a factor in their return - many were in hotels that cater to tourists starting Memorial Day.

"Where would the people go when the summer people who had their rentals came?" said Robert Rowell, 62, who was out shoveling his neighbors' walkways in the middle of Pecks Beach.

Renovations were adequate, he said. "It's livable," he said. "If they'd waited on HUD to decide how to do things, we'd still be out in the cold."


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453 @amysrosenberg

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