8/29/2015 GRIFFIN: Meet housing needs of all Sandy victims, Asbury Park Press
Nearly three years after superstorm Sandy devastated New Jersey’s Shore communities, tourists have returned to enjoy our beaches and sample frozen custard and cotton candy on our coast’s restored boardwalks.
But while our tourism industry recovers and multimillion dollar homes with oceanfront views return to the once-devastated Shore, thousands of working families — the backbone of our economy — are being left behind by an uneven rebuilding effort threatening to price them out of the Jersey Shore.
Despite billions of dollars in federal funds allocated to help New Jersey recover, a report by the Fair Share Housing Center found that more than 15,000 families are still waiting to have their homes rebuilt. Renters, minorities, working- and middle-class families and people with disabilities still too often have not recovered from the impact of the 2012 storm.
To make matters worse, a new wave of foreclosures in Sandy-impacted communities is now threatening the rebuilding progress already made. In the first 10 months of 2014, 305 Sandy-affected homes in Monmouth and Ocean counties alone were pushed into foreclosure. Many of these homeowners fell behind on their mortgage payments because of added financial burdens placed on their families by disaster recovery efforts.
Families found themselves paying for both a mortgage and a rental unit, double-dipping into their monthly incomes to maintain a roof over their heads and the payments on the damaged house they had once called their home. Many of the homes destroyed by Sandy were being rented by families with children in local school districts and parents who worked for local businesses.
In this context, a series of recent New Jersey court decisions reaffirming our state’s fair housing policies hold the key to ensure that we build a Jersey Shore that’s for all New Jerseyans. In New Jersey, providing adequate housing for working families and people with disabilities isn’t just an ethical obligation — it’s a legal responsibility. Our state Constitution requires municipalities to provide their fair share of housing opportunities to ensure that every New Jerseyan has access to a decent home.
Yet in recent years, the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing, which is charged with enforcing the state’s housing laws, failed to do its job — in large part because Gov. Chris Christie tried, in his own words, to “gut” the agency based on his belief that wealthy towns should be able to keep everyone else out.
Finally, in March, the state Supreme Court said New Jersey’s families could no longer wait. In a unanimous decision the court reaffirmed in the strongest possible terms our state’s commitment to affordable housing and broke the logjam by giving independent judges oversight.
This should translate into real help for Sandy survivors by opening the path toward new housing opportunities. What we now need are political leaders willing to step up and fulfill their moral and legal obligations to rebuild the Shore.
Where towns have worked cooperatively with housing advocates and Sandy survivors to prevent displacement by creating new housing opportunities, we’re starting to see results. In Toms River, officials worked closely with developers to provide 72 affordable rental opportunities that is being funded in part by a $5 million grant using federal disaster funds.
But too many municipalities are still working to delay and frustrate progress toward creating a Jersey Shore that has a place for working families. In Berkeley, township officials are trying to stop an 88-unit housing complex that would be located on Route 9. The project, which is being financed in part by federal recovery funds, would give Sandy survivors first crack at leases. And Little Egg Harbor is trying to delay a 60-unit rental development for working families that would also be financed by federal funds. These delays mean that worthy projects down the Shore risk losing funding in favor of shovel-ready developments in other parts of the region.
We need to send our local officials a message: Nobody, including working-class families, should be permanently displaced from the Shore they once called home. Those who live and work in our coastal communities deserve the same opportunities to rebuild, to reconstruct, to regain the lives they once had.
Charles Griffin, of Little Egg Harbor, is a member of the New Jersey Organizing Project, a grassroots, regional campaign to fight for a full, equitable recovery after Superstorm Sandy. Robert Suarez, also of Little Egg Harbor and another member of the project, contributed to this oped.
8/19/15 Sandy Transparency Act Requires State to Provide Homeowners Information On Case Status, Deadlines
By Brenda Flanagan, Correspondent for NJ TV. Video available by clicking this link.
Carpenters added railings to Krista Sperber’s front porch in Belmar today, bringing the Sandy survivor a few steps closer to home. It’s a big improvement over the flood-wrecked building we saw almost two years ago. But as the rebuilding process dragged on, her family’s moved five times — waiting.
“There was no rental assistance. We’re in a summer community. We couldn’t find a place to live and stay with their friends and neighbors. Thankfully we have a really great neighborhood, took us in,” said Sperber.
“I’m actually in a camper right now, because I have to be off the property,” said Lisa Stevens.
Stevens can’t go home yet, either. Many Sandy homeowners say they feel twice victimized — once by Sandy, and again by the problem plagued state-run rebuilding program.
“It was failure. You know, there’s only 10 percent of the people that have been put back in their homes,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Sweeney sponsored the Sandy Transparency Act, which requires the state to provide critical data to survivors as they navigate the labyrinth of grants and loans applications, to elevate and renovate their homes. New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs will gear up over the next couple of months to eventually offer information like case status, amounts, deadlines.
“Families can get answers. And I think that’s the most important piece here, is to be able to find out where you stand and when you can expect help,” said Sweeney.
“I think with the transparency, I think we’re gonna be able to see more of how that’s going,” said Stevens.
“It’s gonna be a huge help, cause people are gonna know. Knowing is the most important thing and we can plan ahead. Now you know you’re gonna be out 90 days, 180 days — whatever it is. That gives you time to get your rental assistance taken care of,” said Joe Mangino.
Mangino’s not home in beach Haven West yet. He got help from Gov. Chris Christie — but,
“It took me traveling to Iowa in March to confront our governor at an agriculture summit get my project to finally begin. And people shouldn’t have to do that,” said Mangino.
But the Department of Community Affairs takes a very different view, stating the Transparency Act “…essentially codifies much of what DCA already has been doing to let the public at large and individual applicants know how … Disaster Recovery funds are being used in the Sandy recovery effort …We’re confident homeowners in the RREM Program know where they are in the process and have resources readily available should they have questions about their individual situation…”
Sperber disagrees. She demonstrated with other Sandy victims when the governor announced his candidacy for president. Then a Westfield contractor offered to raise her home for free.
“The final move, Home. Finally,” Sperber said.
While families say they do welcome the increased transparency, they want more. They want the rebuilding to be done before Sandy’s third anniversary. They want to go home.
By Russ Zimmer, Asbury Park Press. Video also available on their site at this link: Steve Sweeney talks new Sandy law in Belmar.
Victims of superstorm Sandy hope a new law requiring New Jersey to share more information with homeowners will make life away from home — however much longer that is — a little bit easier.
Last week, Gov. Chris Christie signed S-2825 into law, something that wasn't a sure thing. He had vetoed similar legislation in the past.
On Wednesday, the bill's sponsor, Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and recovery advocates gathered in Belmar to take a victory lap.
The Sandy transparency bill, as its authors have taken to calling it, is designed to provide homeowners in the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program — and RREM's sister program for low- and moderate-income residents — with a better understanding of where they are in the rebuilding process. That's welcome news to as many as 9,000 homeowners.
Highlights of the new law include:
• RREM and LMI grantees should expect a customized timeline that breaks down when their project will receive payments;
• a majority of homeowners in the rebuilding programs to receive at least half of their grant money by the end of this year;
• the state is required to explore ways to use disaster aid already in hand, but committed elsewhere, to be used instead for homeowners who are ready to rebuild but have not had funds released.
The state has 90 days to develop most of the processes and plans, according to Adam Gordon, an attorney with the Fair Share Housing Center.
“For the most part, we’re talking about something that will be up and running in a few months,” he said Wednesday.
Just knowing when work is going to begin or end empowers a homeowner to make educated decisions on important matters, such as how long of an apartment lease to sign and what assistance to apply for, said Joe Mangino, a Beach Haven West homeowner in the RREM program. Martino spoke Wednesday about how the new law could have saved his family from a deluge of stress.
"My nightmare began on Thanksgiving 2014 when we were told by our builder to move out so our home could be raised — 110 days went by with nothing being done and zero information given to me, except for lies from my builder," Mangino said.
"Knowing is the most important thing," he added. "Now we can plan ahead.”
Russ Zimmer: 732-557-5748, firstname.lastname@example.org
By Maryann Spoto, Star Ledger
BELMAR —When Krista Sperber was ushered out of an office last year for insisting on an accounting of how her Hurricane Sandy rebuilding money was allocated, the Belmar resident said she was livid over not getting information she contends she was entitled to have.
Now that a new law is in place to hold contractors and state officials more accountable in the post-Sandy rebuilding process, Sperber said thousands of other Sandy victims will now be able to get the type of information she was denied.
"There's no way I should have been thrown out of the RREM office because I wanted to know how they got their numbers," said Sperber, referring to the much-criticized state-run Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation Program. "That should not be a secret to anyone."
Sperber's is one of the many complaints of Sandy victims that caught the attention of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who visited Belmar on Wednesday to tout the new law that he said would make the rebuilding process more transparent for residents.
A couple of times Sweeney took a swipe at Gov. Chris Christie, who vetoed an earlier version of the bill then known as the Sandy Bill of Rights, and at Republicans in the state Legislature who voted for the bill of rights but then voted against an override of Christie's veto.
"Finally we got a situation where families can get answers," That's the most important piece here, is to be able to find out where you stand and when you can expect help."
Under the new law, which Sweeney sponsored and Christie signed last week, the Department of Community Affairs is required to give detailed timelines to Sandy victims who have applied for financial assistance under the state's recovery programs. Those timelines must explain when applicants can expect to see their aid money arrive. It also requires the Department of Community Affairs to establish quarterly goals for distributing aid and to post the information online in plain language.
Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs, said the new law codifies what the department has already been doing with the money, which comes from federal Community Development Block Grant funding.
She said the RREM Program, for example, has individually contacted every one of the approximately 8,300 Sandy-affected homeowners actively participating in the program about their grants, the rebuilding of their homes and where they stand in the process.
"We're confident homeowners in the RREM Program know where they are in the process and have resources readily available should they have questions about their individual situation," she said. "We're also confident that we are providing New Jersey residents with up-to-date information about CDBG Disaster Recovery funding at work. We look forward to continuing to provide people rebuilding from the storm with the information they need to move forward with their recovery from the storm."
Joe Mangino has been out of his home in the Beach Haven West section of Stafford Township since Thanksgiving last year waiting for it to be elevated.
Mangino, co-founder of the Sandy victims advocacy group New Jersey Organizing Project, said the law's provisions would have enabled him and his family to make more informed decisions about where to live while they were out of their home. He said they twice did not take advantage of rental assistance programs because they believed their project manager's claims that they would be back home soon. That was 245 days ago, he said.
Mangino, who followed Christie to an agricultural summit in Iowa in March to complain about the RREM program, said it "has been plagued by delays, confusion and disorganization" and he praised the new law.
"It's a major step forward. I know thousands of families are going to benefit from this and not have to go through the RREM quagmire that I endured," he said.
Adam Gordon, staff attorney for the housing advocacy group Fair Share Housing, said only 10 percent of all the residents who are in the RREM Program are back in their homes.
"It makes sure that no matter what program you're in, no matter where you stand in the process you have an opportunity to actually know where you stand (and) what you need to do to rebuild," Gordon said.
"In some ways, it's crazy we have to pass legislation in order to have that," he added.
MaryAnn Spoto may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryAnnSpoto. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
8/16/15 Christie agreed to be more transparent on Sandy relief. Will he? | Editorial Star Ledger
The Christie administration has long been inexcusably secretive when it comes to Hurricane Sandy recovery. That's why the governor's recent signing of a bill to increase transparency around the aid distribution process comes as such a welcome surprise.
This new law, sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, will give renters and homeowners who applied for disaster relief a personalized timeline that will make clear how long the process should take. This is important because all along, storm victims have complained of confusion, disorganization and delays.
It's been nearly three years since the storm hit, yet only a small minority of the thousands approved for rebuilding grants have actually been able to rebuild. Most have no real sense of what they need to do to move forward, poll after poll has found. In the meantime, hundreds of homes have slipped into foreclosure.
MORE STAR-LEDGER EDITORIALS The state says more than half the money has now been handed out to homeowners. Yet of the more than 15,000 who originally sought help, just 1,450 homes have actually been rebuilt. Little more than half have been elevated. About 4,000 people dropped out of the program altogether, for reasons unknown.
That's troubling. Some may not have wanted to elevate their homes, or get flood insurance. But others likely just got tired of waiting.
The state certainly doesn't bear all the blame for the delays, but the very least it could do is make this process more user-friendly. Until now, Christie had called Sweeney's bill unnecessary and duplicative. Twice before, he gutted it, even though it had passed unanimously -- and the Republicans who voted for it refused to stand up to him.
So while the governor deserves due credit for finally stepping in, above all, Sandy victims can thank Sweeney, for refusing to give up. Maybe, in the face of rising public pressure -- including angry blowups not only here but in Iowa -- Christie felt he had to do something. So he signed the bill.
Now, we hope his administration actually lives up to its promises.
The governor's record on this isn't great. When Christie was first inaugurated, he promised a new era of transparency in state government. Yet right from the beginning, that didn't seem to apply to Sandy aid. He refused to send his top Sandy officials to legislative hearings until well after his re-election. If not for a public records request from Fair Share Housing, we might never have known that the lead contractor for the state's largest rebuilding program had been rejecting eligible storm victims.
The state apparently had no plans to fix this. And it continues to circumvent another bipartisan law sponsored by Sweeney, which requires close oversight of the relief funds that go to state contractors. Christie officials have refused to disclose the bulk of their spending in any detail, including the money that went to the incompetent contractor that they quietly fired.
Instead, they set up a system to ensure that integrity monitor reports are not released to the legislature, but simply summarized. It's coordinated by a firm that employs -- guess who? -- Christie's brother, Todd.
So yes, the governor did the right thing by signing Sweeney's transparency bill. But for the sake of the many people who still aren't home, we hope he follows not only the letter of this law, but the spirit of it.
We're South Jersey and the Shore standing together for community solutions.