Adventures in Sandyland: Some clawback progress & ICC extension.
At just a little over halfway through 2018 we’ve made some progress. First, as you may remember, back in May we won an extension of ICC funding so you have three more years to use up to $30,000 of your own insurance money to mitigate. Yay! Read "Sandy victims get 3 more years to get grant money for flood work" here. Second, and I’m not sure this has been reported anywhere – we received notice from the Department of Community Affairs that they have stopped sending out new clawback letters.
Go on, celebrate for a sec. Because there is a “but.” ;-)
That’s great news, and it’s a start. But – they tell us that they are “holding off” on sending new final grant reconciliation notices asking people to repay funding because of a duplication of benefits because they are still figuring out what their approach is going to be. It’s great that no new letters are going out – that’s certainly a better approach than under Governor Christie! But we are going for a commitment that clawbacks are ENDING and that previously issued clawbacks under the Christie Administration will be forgiven. And so, we’ll keep working knowing, as always, that together we make a difference.
In case you’re reading one of my updates for the first time, I’ll go over what clawbacks are.
Under Governor Christie, families received letters, or sometimes a verbal warning, from RREM that they owe some part of their grant funds back. And still today folks get a warning on the phone that they may have a clawback, but no final statement saying they owe funds back (see above). It’s a little confusing. It’s a grant right? How do you take that back? Anyway, it often isn't clear from the initial letter provided why the DCA thinks the funds are owed. While in some cases these debts are likely linked to the DCA's interpretation of duplication of benefits under the Stafford Act (federal law), there is no way to appeal or adjust the amount based on ability to pay other than to submit additional receipts. In the past, families were then given 3 years or 36 months to repay and simply told to send a cashier's check made out to, "Treasurer, State of New Jersey."
According to the report, The Long Road Home, released October of 2017 by the New Jersey Resource Project, twenty percent of the families surveyed in the RREM or LMI program were told that they owe money back to the grant programs. More than a third of this group were informed verbally and never provided with written notice. Just over half reported that they wanted to appeal but did not know how to do so. Of the homeowners who reported a clawback amount, the average amount they were told to repay was $30,643, and nearly 90 percent reported that they could not afford to pay the money back. Part of the problem is that New Jersey’s RREM program only gave people up to $150,000 – where New York City, for example gave up to $300,000. Many families needed additional funding from other sources covered under the Stafford Act and that wasn’t a great start. The other part of the problem is largely the inconsistent, confusing way the RREM program was administered.
New Jersey spent $43.6 million on Hammerman and Gainer Inc, who were initially hired to run the RREM program, and later fired. But we’re nickel and diming families who did everything they were told to? We can do better, and we deserve better.
In good news, families who continue to try to have their clawback amounts reduced on an individual basis are seeing success. Send in all the receipts. Do everything you can on your own while we continue to work together.
Last but not least, this doesn’t magically happen. It happens because of the hard work of a dedicated team of people. This progress has been brought to you by the following folks:
Amanda Devecka-Rinear, Executive Director
New Jersey Organizing Project and New Jersey Resource Project.