Sandy foreclosure bill heads to governor - Jean Mikie, Asbury Park Press
Bill to help Sandy victims avoid foreclosure goes to governor - Michelle Brunetti, Press of Atlantic City
A bill to help Hurricane Sandy victims avoid foreclosure headed to the governor’s desk Monday after passing the state Senate.
It had already passed the Assembly.
The bill, S2300, would give homeowners hurt by Sandy the ability to apply for a forbearance period on their mortgages, during which they could stop making mortgage payments but would have to continue to maintain and insure their properties and pay property taxes.
Co-sponsor Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, said providing a pathway to prevent foreclosure will protect families who are struggling to fund both a mortgage and rent.
“The process of securing state and federal recovery funds is long and complex,” Beck said. “It has been four years, and yet we still have 3,200 Sandy victims eager to complete elevation and construction projects, including some that have just begun.”
The other co-sponsor was Brian Stack, D-Hudson.
While advocates celebrated its legislative approval, they won’t be able to relax until Gov. Chris Christie signs it. He conditionally vetoed a somewhat similar bill last year.
“We are only two-thirds of the way toward really helping people,” said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, of Cedar Bonnet Island in Stafford Township, founder of the New Jersey Organizing Project, a grassroots group. “We really need the governor to do the right thing and sign the legislation.”
The mortgage forbearance period would be until one year after the home is awarded a certificate of occupancy, or to July 1, 2019, whichever is earlier.
The bill provides for more transparency by the state Department of Community Affairs in its decision-making on applications under the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation; Low-to-Moderate Income; and Tenant-Based Rental Assistance programs.
It also extends the one-year deadline for completing a project following a program grant award, if the delay was caused by a builder.
The bill defines a Sandy-impacted homeowner as one who received rental assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a result of damage to his or her primary residence due to Sandy, or has been approved for assistance through RREM or LMI.
Devecka-Rinear’s group has drawn attention to the thousands of families whose houses were badly damaged and who are still not back in their homes.
Last year’s bill that Christie conditionally vetoed would have allowed for a three-year mortgage forbearance. Christie said he felt such questions should be left in the hands of the courts.
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Sandy survey wants the ‘truth’ from NJ storm victims - Dino Flammia, NJ 101.5
If your home suffered damage from Superstorm Sandy, your input is needed in a statewide survey that seeks the “truth” about lingering issues and the toll it’s taken on New Jersey residents.
In 2013, a home rests in Barnegat Bay, in Mantoloking, where it was swept to by Superstorm Sandy. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)Officially known as the Sandy Truth Project, the partnership between New Jersey Organizing Project, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice and Rutgers University, is hoping to gather 500 to 800 responses from Sandy victims, either online or by canvassing storm-affected neighborhoods.
“We definitely want to dive in deep and we’re looking for details,” said Joe Mangino, cofounder of New Jersey Organizing Project, a nonprofit devoted to Sandy survivors.
So respondents won’t just be asked if they’re back home and happy with the recovery money they may have received. The survey seeks to learn who was a victim of contractor fraud, and how, or who’s been contacted by the state to return some of the funds they received to rebuild.
Reports in October cited more than 170 homeowners who received notices demanding that money be repaid due to duplicative benefits.
Mangino said he’s working on legislation with lawmakers to deal with “clawback” letters.
The survey also targets the lingering economic and health impacts of the October 2012 storm.
“We know a lot of people suffered mentally from this with PTSD and other issues,” Mangino said. “And many people may now be back home but their home is facing foreclosure because they’ve exhausted everything they had just to get back into their house.”
The survey will run for another two months or so, Mangino said. Members in January will canvas neighborhoods in Little Egg Harbor and Beach Haven. There are also plans to speak with residents of Brick, Toms River and northern Monmouth County.
“We want to be able to take action,” Mangino said. “We’re doing this survey to uncover what are the next things we need to work on.”
Sandyversary Sheds Light on Problems Yet to Be Solved, a Community United in Recovery - By Victoria Ford, The SandPaper
On Saturday, Oct. 29, the fourth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, 130 people who either were directly affected or otherwise support the recovery cause attended a gathering at the Lighthouse Tavern in Waretown to raise money and to reflect on progress made and progress yet to make. Planned and led by the New Jersey Organizing Project, the event raised $8,000, which will support the community-funded Sandy Truth Project, the first of its kind, a community-based participatory post-Sandy survey.
Through the storm itself and the flood insurance and bureaucratic disasters that followed it, as NJOP founder Amanda Devecka-Rinear put it, “families and communities have fought for respect, dignity, and to make recovery programs work.” The party provided an opportunity to connect with others facing similar circumstances “and to recognize the fighting spirit of our communities,” she said.
Many donors bought tickets for those who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend. “We didn’t turn anybody away, and we were able to give away around 30 tickets.”
The most pressing matter at present is the foreclosure bill in the state Legislature that would buy time for those in danger of losing their homes as a result of Sandy-related financial straits.
Based on what the bill looks like today, according to Devecka-Rinear, its passage would allow for people in the RREM program, or people who received rental assistance from FEMA after Sandy, to apply for a forbearance on their mortgage. This is good news, especially for those who lost their primary homes and didn’t end up in RREM, or those located outside the nine counties that qualified for RREM and such programs, she said. It’s also good news for people already in foreclosure – the bill stops the clock for a few months to catch up – and for those not yet in foreclosure but struggling every month to pay the bills. Some breathing room might make it possible to finish rebuilding projects.
But to those who stand to benefit, what would the legislation really mean?
“I’ll have a life again,” says Tricia McAvoy of Brick. She has experienced “one problem after another” for four years, including post-traumatic stress because her neighborhood was not under evacuation orders, and she and her father, husband and two kids were trapped in and later rescued from the house, which is situated 15 feet from a bulkhead. Today she can’t go inside the house alone; the memories are too vivid.
“I’ll never forget the sound of the gurgling,” she said. “That was the water coming in.”
NJOP members Colleen Forest and Chuck Griffin, both from Little Egg Harbor, are at different stages of the process but share a common resolve: “I’m not going to stop until my neighborhood is restored,” Forest said. Forest moved back into her home about a month ago, while Griffin has seen no physical reconstruction work started yet because he got tangled up with a fraudulent contractor.
At this point, the toll on mental health is a concern for many. Forest, for example, had thought she was over the worst of the psychological trauma of coping with the grief and loss, but being back in her house now she finds the anxiety has returned. Some have a whole new wave of fear washing over them, haunted as they are by the past while standing in the shadow of an unknowable future.
Devecka-Rinear said she is confident the Senate and Assembly will pass the foreclosure bill; the real variable is the governor, who in January conditionally vetoed similar legislation. “I just hope he understands that he’ll be directly responsible for families losing their homes to banks if he vetoes it again,” she said.
Two days prior to the party, NJOP members had testified before the state Oversight and Regulatory Committee, where the chair committed to write legislation to address the critical problems and needs. While the governor keeps saying the state has recovered, Devecka-Rinear argues less than 50 percent of the families in the state’s RREM program are not finished with their construction or elevation projects.
And yet, “every day, residents find the strength and courage to keep pushing to get home.” As a galvanizing entity, NJOP and the coastal region it serves has “continued to stand together and fight to get families home and make sure they can afford to stay,” she said.
In addition to troubling financial and health issues, RREM has been sending recoupment or “clawback” letters to participants, requiring them to pay back thousands of dollars with no clear explanation or appeal process. The message from NJOP: “Don’t panic. We need to tackle this together.”
Moreover, New Jersey is the only coastal state in the country without a plan for sea level rise. “We’re concerned that we’re no more prepared for rising water and extreme weather now than we were before Sandy,” Devecka-Rinear said. “That puts millions of homes, jobs and families in jeopardy.”
So, plenty remains to be fixed and figured out.
The takeaway, from NJOP’s perspective: “We are the ones who are going to create change in our communities, and we’re going to do that by acting together. For folks that are still struggling to get home – know it’s not your fault. The recovery has failed many, many people just like you. Know that you’re not forgotten. We’re standing with you.”
— Victoria Ford
A chance to tell your real Sandy story | Di Ionno - By Mark Di Lonno, NJ.com
George Kasimos felt bad about cursing at the governor.
"For about a minute," he said. "Then I figured, 'He's the governor. He should know better.' "
At issue was the number 1,700.
That was how many people Gov. Chris Christie said remain displaced by Hurricane Sandy when he spoke last week in Seaside Heights on the fourth anniversary of the storm.
Christie's exact quote during the news conference at Jimbo's Bar and Grill on the boardwalk went like this:
"It truly is something to highlight that, in four years, we've helped to restore the households of nearly everyone affected by the storm that impacted nearly 365,000 homes and we're down to 1,700 left of people who are not back in their homes."
Kasimos' exact quote went like this:
"That's a bull(----) number and you know it," Kasimos shouted.
"When he said that, I went through the roof," Kasimos said this week. "I mean, I personally know a few hundred people still out, just in my organization alone."
That group is Stop FEMA Now, started by Kasimos and others in January 2013 in response to new federal flood maps that forced homeowners to elevate their houses and raised their insurance premiums.
"In Toms River alone, we still have about 600 to 700 homes substantially damaged," he said. "That's just Toms River! What about the rest of the state?"
Good question. From Moonachie to Newark's Ironbound to Union Beach, to Ortley Beach to the lagoon areas of the Metedeconk and the Toms rivers, there are still pockets or swaths of vacant homes. Some are under construction and some are just the way Sandy left them, except for the plywood boards nailed over the windows or doors.
At the Friday event, Christie hadn't even finished saying "1,700" when Amanda Devecka-Rinear yelled out, "That's not true, governor!"
We want a more complete picture of what the recovery actually looks like." -- Amanda Devecka-Rinear, NJOPDevecka-Rinear is the head of the New Jersey Organizing Project (NJOP), formed on the second anniversary of Sandy to give a unified voice to storm victims.
Devecka-Rinear not only objects to the number 1,700, but also to the nearly "365,000" homes the governor obliquely claimed the state helped make whole.
That number has often been kicked around, but when the state's umbrella agency for the recovery, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), applied for federal Sandy aid, it said "40,000 owner-occupied homes in the state (were) severely damaged or destroyed."
That does not include second homes, which are ineligible for government recovery aid. A ride through Ortley Beach and other parts of the barrier island north of Seaside Heights proves many vacation homes are still boarded up or under construction.
According to the DCA website, a total of 7,995 homeowners entered the state's Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program and Low-to-Moderate Income Homeowners Rebuilding (LMI) program.
The state website suggests 4,115 of those homes are still being worked on.
"We just don't know the real numbers," Devecka-Rinear said. "We know, at one point, the state said there were 15,000 people who applied for RREM grants, which means 7,000 dropped out. What happened to them?"
Another good question.
That's why NJOP is developing a statewide survey of storm damage called the "Sandy Truth Project."
While the research may not be all-encompassing, Devecka-Rinear said she hopes it will "record the stories of what the recovery actually looks like.
"This is more than just about the numbers," she said. "It's about the impact of the storm on people's financial and mental health, and all the other elements of adverse impact."
That includes the frustration of dealing with insurance claims and government recovery programs, or quantifying the problems people had with insurance companies and contractors.
Part of the point is to understand what help victims of Sandy still need. For instance, NJOP pushed for legislation which would have staved off foreclosure for people still out of their homes, but that bill was vetoed by Christie earlier this year.
"We're still pushing that bill," Devecka-Rinear said. "That's a good example though of what you learn when you hear people's stories."
The idea for the survey came from a summer-long tour of Sandy-impacted areas by NJOP and other nonprofit groups looking to help storm victims.
Part of the tour was a portable "Sandy wall" that displayed photos, messages and other remembrances of the storm and the recovery.
"We had so many people come out and tell us their stories, we wanted to do something more comprehensive," Devecka-Rinear said.
The group is training volunteers to conduct surveys in several impacted communities, with help from Rutgers and Stockton State universities.
Sign-ups for the survey are available online at newjerseyop.org. Devecka-Rinear knows many of the people most impacted might not be internet savvy, so they can also call NJOP at (609) 312-3899 to participate.
"We certainly want to reach the older people and people who might not have access to the internet," she said. "That's the only way to a get a complete picture."
Fraud Cases Popping Up in New Jersey Four Years After Sandy - By Kate King, The Wall Street Journal
New Jersey officials are still addressing a flood of fraud complaints related to superstorm Sandy four years after it slammed ashore.
Prosecutors are investigating or have filed criminal charges in 161 cases involving more than $15 million in alleged fraud stemming from the storm, according to the state attorney general’s office and prosecutors in Ocean County, one of the counties hit hardest by the storm.
More than a third of the criminal charges brought by state prosecutors were filed in 2016, records show.
Many of the investigations have focused on building contractors accused of cheating their customers. But hotel operators, car dealers and homeowners also have been charged with stealing disaster relief money and other crimes.
In September, the owner of an Ocean County motel pleaded guilty to falsely claiming that he had sheltered Sandy victims to get $81,000 in federal funds. In 2014, an operator of a used-car dealership in Middlesex County was sentenced to three years in state prison after pleading guilty to securing fraudulent vehicle titles to sell cars damaged by Sandy to unsuspecting customers. The state has also filed charges against residents accused of improperly claiming disaster funding.
“We’ve getting new victims every day,” said Sgt. Mark Malinowski, who runs an economic-crimes unit for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office. “I have a feeling that this is something that’s not going to go away, at least in Ocean County.”
In addition to criminal cases, New Jersey officials have issued $1.5 million in civil penalties and restitution claims against 46 people and companies, mainly for hotel and gas price gouging.
Another $1.8 million in civil claims have been assessed against 135 home-improvement contractors accused of performing shoddy or incomplete work in the hardest-hit counties.
The cases prosecuted by the state involve more than $3.5 million in alleged fraud. Although small compared with fraud investigations typically handled by the state, the nature of the crimes calls for prosecution at the highest level, said Attorney General Christopher Porrino.
“When you’re preying on people who have already been displaced from their homes and disadvantaged, it’s particularly troublesome and egregious, so we’ve been very aggressive,” he said. “We’re literally making examples of people for the purposes of deterring this kind of conduct.”
Sandy wrecked more than 40,000 New Jersey homes and caused an estimated $37 billion in damage. Government agencies awarded more than $8 billion to help residents and businesses in the state rebuild. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has approved $4.5 billion of the $8 billion in disaster relief and recovery assistance, usually works with state attorney-general offices to prosecute fraud, spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said.
New Jersey officials have allocated $4.2 billion in federal Sandy recovery funding. As of Oct. 17, $2.7 billion had been awarded to homeowners, businesses and public programs.
New batches of fraud complaints seem to follow each new round of recovery grants that is distributed, Sgt. Malinowski said.
Unscrupulous builders note when a large amount of public funding is released, and homeowners, eager to begin repairs and flush with government cash, don’t always do their due diligence. Some residents appear to have been defrauded by multiple contractors.
“You have people who’ve lost everything,” Sgt. Malinowski said. “And now they’ve lost it twice.”
In Ocean County, local and county authorities have filed charges or are investigating cases involving more than $11.9 million in alleged fraud related to Sandy. County prosecutors have conducted dozens of investigations involving more than 150 victims.
Little Egg Harbor resident Chuck Griffin, who lives on a lagoon and whose house was flooded with 40 inches of water during the storm, still isn’t home four years later. The delay came about in part because the local contractor he hired to fix and elevate his house allegedly pocketed Mr. Griffin’s $55,000 initial payment, disconnected the utilities and disappeared.
The contractor, Jeffrey Colmyer, was arrested along with his partner, Tiffany Cimino, earlier this month and charged by the state attorney general with defrauding Mr. Griffin and two dozen other homeowners of more than $377,000. Prosecutors, who are still investigating the case, have accused Mr. Colmyer and Ms. Cimino of using customers’ money to buy luxury items, including a $17,000 diamond ring, and gamble in nearby Atlantic City.
Ms. Cimino’s attorney didn’t return calls for comment. Mr. Colmyer, 41 years old, doesn’t have an attorney, state officials said.
Mr. Griffin, 70, a retired nurse, has owned his 860-square-foot home since the mid-1980s. He met with a builder this month and hopes to be back in his home by May.
Mr. Griffin said that Mr. Colmyer’s alleged crimes delayed his rebuilding by nearly two years and pitched him into a paperwork and bureaucratic nightmare. “You can understand why people walked away,” he said.
Chaos erupts at Christie speech in Seaside - By Erik Larson, Asbury Park Press
SEASIDE HEIGHTS - Chaos erupted at an event commemorating the fourth anniversary of superstorm Sandy on Friday, forcing Gov. Chris Christie to temporarily leave his lectern where he was delivering a speech about the recovery.
Christie was at Jimbo’s Bar and Grilll on the Boardwalk in Seaside Heights when he was interrupted by protesters after he stated that of the 365,000 homes that sustained damaged in the Oct. 29, 2012 disaster there were 1,700 homes that were still uninhabitable.
"Governor, that's not true," called out Amanda Devecka-Rinear of the New Jersey Organizing Project, who was seated near the media in the back of the bar.
"I call bull----!" shouted George Kasimos, founder of Stop FEMA Now, who was standing nearby, and who continued to repeat the line again and again. "That is a "bull---- number, sir!"
At issue was whether the governor was inflating the original number of damaged homes, counting those properties with just minor damage, in an effort to give the appearance that the recovery had been far more successful than was factual.
Devecka-Rinear said later that the number of homes in New Jersey that were rendered uninhabitable four years ago was actually closer to 40,500 — data she said came from the state Department of Community Affairs in a report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The situation began to deteriorate when a Seaside Heights police officer attempted to calm Kasimos, who was the loudest of what became a chorus of several shouting protesters — some who had raised homemade signs over their heads critical of the recovery effort.
"If you want to arrest me, you can arrest me, but I'm going to talk," Kasimos said, as another man repeatedly shouted: "Finish the job!"
"This is what happens when you don't work for the people, sir!" Kasimos said. "Four years of frustration!"
"Governor, there are 7,679 families that are not back home yet!" said Jim Keady — the man who two years ago was infamously told by Christie to “sit down and shut up” — at a 2014 Sandy anniversary ceremony in Belmar, where Keady had also heckled the governor.
Christie met with Sandy protestors in Seaside Heights
NJ Governor Chris Christie was met with protestors at Jimbo's Bar & Grill on the Seaside Heights boardwalk Friday, October 28, 2016, during what was planned as a commemoration on the fourth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy highlighting business and infrastructure rebuilding and recovery across impacted communities. THOMAS P. COSTELLO"That's simply not true," replied Christie, who remained calm during the demonstration. Eventually, he left the lectern asking the protesters to join him at the front of the room where he invited them to write down their contact information so his staff could contact each of them on Saturday.
The gesture had the effect of pacifying the protest and Christie was eventually able to continue his remarks with few interruptions.
When Christie returned to the podium, he continued to assert that the number of homes "damaged or destroyed" was 365,000 and there were 1,700 families left that were still waiting to return to their homes.
"I'm not happy that 1,700 families have not been restored," Christie said, who outlined the bureaucratic complexities of the recovery effort, the challenges of trying to address the needs of all the victims, of opening the reconstruction process to a bigger pool of building contractors — some of whom were unscrupulous and engaged in fraud.
"So let's keep things in perspective on what's being done and what hasn't been done," Christie said, who remained poised throughout the event and quipped that he would have attempted to make changes at the federal level — specifically referencing a need to overhaul the National Flood Insurance Program — had his presidential ambitions succeeded.
"The fact that all but 1,700 of those homes are back and restored is something I'm enormously proud of no matter how many people yell and scream," Christie said. "And that doesn't mean that those who have valid complaints shouldn't be heard and shouldn't try to be helped. Our office has been trying to help everyone and has helped tens of thousands of people who have been put in that circumstance."
After the governor's speech, a relaxed and congenial Kasimos spoke to reporters and even offered some praise for Christie.
"I think the governor hit it right on the head when he said that FEMA was just screwing with (National Flood Insurance Program) policy holders, I'm glad he brought that up and I love it," Kasimos said. "But we've been waiting four years to get money to rebuild our homes and the banks are foreclosing on us. That's a big problem."
In January, Christie conditionally vetoed legislation that would have let Sandy-impacted homeowners delay foreclosures and put off mortgage payments until 2019 and that infuriated disaster victims such as Kasimos who thought the governor could have alleviated much suffering with the wave of a pen.
"We definitely need protection for our homeowners," he said.
Colleen Forest, 54, of Little Egg Harbor, said Christie's opposition to the foreclosures bill had motivated her to protest the governor on Friday. For the first time since Sandy destroyed her house four years ago, she finally returned home one month ago.
"So many of my neighbors are still out and one of the problems that we're having in Little Egg Harbor, and all over this region, are foreclosures and that's why I'm here for today," Forest said. "He needs to sign that bill."
Forest said she had a chance to speak to Christie after he left the lectern amid the heckling and the governor expressed a willingness to stop the foreclosures but that he was opposed to the specific bill the Legislature had sent him 10 months ago.
"We are so financially taxed from Sandy," Forest told Christie. "If I did not get the rental assistance, my home would be in foreclosure."
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EDITORIAL: Sandy victims need foreclosure protection - By Daily Record
What remains remarkable, and tragic, about the ways in which Hurricane Sandy victims have been mistreated is the sheer scope of the offenses. Seemingly every government agency and program that has had its hands in the recovery has cheated and blundered its way through the process, extending the suffering for four years — and counting.
That was the overriding message from victims who poured out some of their heartache during an Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee hearing on the Sandy recovery Thursday. And their nightmares are just a small sampling. Talk to those who have been forced to rebuild and the horror stories just keep coming.
Homeowners have been bewildered, angered and pushed to the brink of capitulation by a bureaucratic maze with obstacles around every turn. The indignities keep multiplying. Many owners were unfairly underpaid on their claims, the result in some cases of intentional doctoring of damage assessments and an appeals process that was itself manipulated to suppress payments. Others endured unreasonably long delays in receiving any assistance, putting greater and greater pressure on their own finances; thousands of homes under the state’s RREM (Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation) program have yet to be rebuilt.
Most troubling to many of the residents who spoke before the Assembly committee is the state’s effort to reclaim supposed aid overpayments that have long been spent, and that recipients can’t possibly be expected to return. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sent out similar recoupment letters trying to get money back. These are not just cases of suspected fraud. Many of the overpayments were simple mistakes. So now victims have to suffer again to make up for someone else’s error?
All of this underscores the critical need for legislation that would protect homeowners from foreclosures for an extended period. A bill that would have accomplished that was conditionally vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in the last legislative session, and lawmakers clearly aren’t working aggressively enough to push a fresh version of a bill through to the governor’s desk. Christie objected to oversight elements, preferring that judges be given control of individual homeowner cases.
Regardless of the method, it is necessary legislation that Sandy victims deserve. Government officials owe it to them after all they’ve put them through after the storm.
Remember how we got here. The recovery effort after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was plagued by problems that generated extensive criticism of excessive spending. FEMA, as a result, was motivated from the start of the Sandy recovery to keep costs down. In theory that meant greater efficiency and awards that more appropriately reflected actual damage, but in practice that meant a variety of schemes to cheat victims.
Damage reports developed on site were changed and underplayed by others who never visited the scene. Public pressure forced many of the underpaid claims to be reconsidered under appeal, but the appeal procedure itself was structured to discourage challenges by withholding entire payments while under review, even if only a portion of the award was under appeal. Public pressure eventually forced officials to reopen many cases that had already been closed, but whistleblowers said even that process was tainted by orders from above to those examining the appeals to simply plug the claims into a formula designed to cheat victims. Under public pressure FEMA eventually adopted several related reforms.
Meanwhile, we learned last week that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development wants the state to justify $43 million in apparently questionable spending, or pay the money back. That stems from an audit of the company formerly in charge of distributing aid under three of the state’s disaster programs. But if some of that money has to be returned, where will it come from? Does the state plan to hit up victims for more repayments?
Nearly everyone, it seems, has failed Sandy victims. Their stories should not have to end with foreclosures largely forced upon them by government incompetence. Lawmakers need to provide some protection while homeowners continue to recover not just from the storm, but from the recovery process itself.
Sandy showed coastal vulnerabilty - By Michelle Brunetti, Press of Atlantic City
PISCATAWAY — Hurricane Sandy showed how vulnerable coastal communities are to storm-related destruction, and models of sea-level rise have made clear the vulnerability will only increase, said speakers at Rutgers University’s “Taking Chances” symposium Friday.
But politicians have not taken the long view, and they haven’t considered ways to deal with storms other than rebuilding, the speakers said. The symposium is one of many Sandy-related events this week, leading up to the fourth anniversary of the Oct. 29, 2012, storm.
Short-term pressure to rebuild “bigger and better” in the same places has dominated the discussion, a panel of policy experts stressed.
That pressure comes from the tourism industry and homeowners understandably desperate to get back into their homes, said Rutgers associate professor Karen M. O’Neill, co-editor of a book on the aftermath of Sandy called “Taking Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy.”
But increasingly, those owning coastal properties are the wealthy, and the panel predicted that trend will continue.
“My conclusion is the real choice is not between rebuilding or retreating, but between gentrification or retreating,” said Clinton J. Andrews, Rutgers professor of urban planning and policy development. “The people won’t be the same people who were living there who get to rebuild in most cases.”
Low- and moderate-income people are being priced out of rebuilding, he said, in some cases forced to sell damaged homes or empty lots at a deep discount, only to see wealthier people build much larger homes there.
Andrews said society needs to let the federal pendulum “swing back towards self-sufficiency” and stop thinking that simply elevating houses is a viable long-term solution.
“It gets us over the next storm, maybe, but not over the long-term sea-level rise,” said Andrews.
Rutgers scientists have predicted a likely 1.5-foot sea-level rise by 2050, effectively drowning many of the wetlands that provide buffering against storm surges and leaving roads and utilities underwater much of the time in some places.
People simply aren’t looking realistically at risk, said Daniel J. Van Abs, Rutgers associate professor of practice for water, society & environment.
“The most significant thing we have not done, we are still not doing, is a recognition of risk,” said Van Abs, the other co-editor of “Taking Chances.” “Unless you are willing to recognize risk, there is no particular incentive to take action.”
The panel recommended looking at ways to begin working collaboratively on a regional level to plan for moving residents out of the most vulnerable areas, including by consolidating municipalities east to west.
At the same time, many of those who are trying to rebuild in areas hard hit by Sandy are still not back in their homes, according to representatives of the New Jersey Organizing Project. The nonprofit was formed to help people negotiate the complex flood insurance and federal emergency funds systems.
They spoke at a state Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Reform and Federal Relations Committee hearing Thursday and at a Tuesday night Sierra Club of New Jersey forum in Brick Township called “Are We Stronger Than The Next Storm?”
“Forty thousand primary homeowners were impacted by the storm (with significant damage), and 15,000 applied for the RREM program,” Amanda Devecka-Rinear, director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, said at the Sierra Club forum.
The state Department of Community Affairs administers the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program with $1.1 billion in federal funds.
Eligible homeowners whose primary homes were damaged by Sandy got up to $150,000 in grants to pay for construction projects such as raising homes that were not covered by other funding sources.
“Of them, 8,000 remain (in the program) today. What happened to the other 7,000, I don’t know,” she said. “Only 4,000 have completed construction and elevation projects. The other 50 percent are not finished. Obviously we need to do better.”
Devecka-Rinear said many have simply given up on negotiating the complex insurance and assistance programs or were inappropriately told they didn’t qualify. She is lobbying for legislation that would let people still caught in Sandy-related financial problems put off paying their mortgages on damaged properties for a time, instead extending the length of their mortgages.
“Our concern is that not only has the state not learned from Sandy, but that these policies will leave us at risk during the next storm,” said Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel.
He said the state has rolled back controls over development in environmentally sensitive coastal areas, in spite of models that predict a 1-3 foot sea-level rise by 2050.
When asked at the Sierra Club forum how anyone can justify rebuilding in highly vulnerable, exposed coastal areas, former Asbury Park Press reporter Kirk Moore said soon there will be strong financial pressure against doing so.
“People want to live near the water,” said Moore, who is now associate editor at WorkBoat magazine and field editor for National Fisherman magazine. “Banks and insurance companies will walk away, and only the super-wealthy who can self-insure will be able to live there.”
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Superstorm Sandy is not over for these residents - By Phil Gregory, NewsWorks
Four years after Superstorm Sandy, thousands of New Jersey residents still have not finished rebuilding. Some of them told their stories to an Assembly committee.
Penny Ryan-Sesta says her house in Little Egg Harbor Township was destroyed and she’s still not back home. She says a state-approved contractor in the RREM program took her money but did not rebuild the home.
"Being a victim of contractor fraud has elevated my fears, crushed my confidence, and further delayed our rebuilding project. I’m here to ask please don’t forget about us. Help us and the other thousands of families out there,” she said.
Doug Quinn says the site of his Sandy-damaged home in Toms River is now an empty lot.
He says the state blocked him from the RREM rebuilding program because it lost documentation about his address and he had to go to Senator Bob Menendez to get his grant restored.
“What about the people that don’t know you can call a senator? What about the people that are elderly? What about the people that have young children? What about the people that are just too wiped out from losing everything they own and living like a refugee for four years that just don’t have it in them to fight this kind of bureaucracy?” he asked.
Julie Suarez says she rebuilt her Little Egg Harbor home with the help of a RREM grant but got a letter two years later demanding she repay the state $50,000. She says her four years of efforts to maintain her family’s stability is taking an emotional toll.
“I have fought tooth and nail to get my family back home and keep us whole and keep our community together. It has been a challenge and then I open this letter. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I want you to help me," said Suarez.
Adam Gordon with the Fair Share Housing Network says about 5,000 families who originally applied for RREM grants to rebuild their Sandy damaged homes got to the point where they gave up.
“That is what happens when these programs don’t work and people are being foreclosed upon. We need to focus partly on this group of people and make sure if there’s any way with these remaining resources that people can be made whole and get back in these communities," he said.
Staci Berger with the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey urges the legislature to approve a bill that would put a moratorium on foreclosures of Sandy-damaged homes.
“It is unbelievable to me that the federal government or the state government would spend a lot of money and all of these good people’s time and energy and then allow a bank to repossess that house,” she said.
Assembly Regulatory Oversight committee chairman Reed Gusciora says legislation passed by the Assembly and awaiting action in the state Senate would deal with many of the victims’ issues by ensuring project deadline fairness and establishing a foreclosure and mortgage relief program.
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