2/13/16 Christie's back home, Sandy victims are not, Mark Di Ionno, Star-Ledger
When we first met Joseph Ready, his Sandy-wrecked home in Union Beach was jacked 20 feet in the air, uninhabitable for his family, but open to feral cats and vandals.
The cats left bird carcasses on his floors and the vandals clogged the toilet. He was living in a FEMA trailer, paying $850 a month in rent and the bank that held his mortgage was breathing down his neck.
His state-appointed contractor was nowhere to be found and the $160,000 payment it received from the state's Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) was all spent.
That was last July, four months after Sandy protesters crashed a Chris Christie presidential campaign stop in Iowa with "Finish the Job" signs.
Now Christie is back home and Joe Ready is not.
And, after Christie's conditional veto of a bill that would have temporarily stopped foreclosure proceedings on Sandy victims, Ready may never get there.
"I expect it will go up in a sheriff's sale before I get in. We're pretty far along in the process," he said.
Joe Ready is one of several thousand Sandy victims still out of their primary homes. How many is hard to say.
A drive through places as distant and disparate as Moonachie, Newark's Ironbound, Union Beach, Ortley Beach and the small villages along the Delaware Bay tells the story. Homes are still boarded up, lots are cleared and storage units are sitting in front of houses under construction. For some homeowners, demolition or elevation hasn't even begun.
In the RREM program alone, only about one-third of homeowners are finished with construction.
According to Lisa Ryan, the Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman, there are about 8,000 people in the RREM program. Of those, 6,765 have "received notices to proceed with construction. Of those, 2,631 have completed construction and are back home, and 4,134 remain 'under construction.' "
Ryan said that doesn't necessarily mean those 4,134 owners are out of their homes. In DCA parlance, "under construction" means the homeowners might still be home, waiting for construction to begin.
"The bottom line is this – way more than half the people are either out of their homes or going to be out of their homes soon," said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, one of the Iowa protesters. "Either way, they're not home for good. That is unacceptable this long after the storm."
Devecka-Rinear heads the New Jersey Organizing Project, formed in response to the myriad problems in the government's Sandy recovery programs.
"I know people are sick of hearing about it," she said. "But imagine how sick the people are of living it."
Count Ready among them.
"Well, at least the dead birds are gone," he said. "And they're back working on the house – when they feel like it. There's been no steady work, but they say it will be another three or four months. I'll believe it when I see it."
By then, he may not own it.
No one knows how many homeowners are trying to juggle rent and mortgage payments on their wrecked homes after years of endless paperwork, well-documented insurance fraud and an overwhelmed recovery program that can't meet every need quickly.
For people like Ready, it's the mortgage ball that usually hits the ground first.
"You have to make an awful choice," he said. "Become homeless (for not paying rent) or lose your house."
Ryan said the state has expanded its rental assistance program and is still taking applicants, but that only 1,240 RREM homeowners remain in the program.
But that doesn't count the people not in RREM.
"We held two meetings recently in Keansburg and Manahawkin, and plenty of people were talking about how they can't pay their mortgages and the banks aren't willing to give modifications," she said. "This idea of people losing their homes is super, super real."
Real enough for legislators from places as distant and disparate as Hudson and Cumberland counties to sponsor bills to stop foreclosure on Sandy victims, provided they weren't in foreclosure before the storm.
Assembly bill A4139 and Senate bill S2577, which were introduced in late 2014 and passed by both houses last December, demanded that banks halt foreclosure on homes in the state RREM program and the LMI (low- and moderate-income) rebuilding program until 60 days after they were reoccupied.
On Jan. 11, Christie conditionally vetoed the bill, meaning he sent it back, rewritten. Christie said he was worried the state might somehow be liable for unpaid payments.
"He eviscerated it. He made it meaningless. His CV (conditional veto) effectively destroys the intent of the bill," said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, whose 36th District includes Bergen and Passaic counties.
Christie's rewrite doesn't change the foreclosure process for Sandy victims, or give them any latitude. It returns the proceedings to state Superior Court, just as always.
"This wasn't a handout," said Schaer, who chairs the Assembly budget committee. "It gave people who were behind on their mortgages – through no fault of their own – a chance to recover. It didn't subsidize them. It simply postponed the process until they got themselves in better stead.
"It's been fairly obvious that we, as a state, have failed these people," Schaer said. "Two things have been absolutely clear (during the recovery): These people have not received the aid they were promised in a timely manner and the state has done little to correct it."
Those living it call it the disaster after the disaster, and the hits – like the foreclosure relief veto – just keep coming.
"At some point, you ask yourself how much you can take," Ready said. "You really do."
Mark Di Ionno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow The Star-Ledger on Twitter @StarLedger and find us on Facebook.
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