3/1/2015 N.J. payout to homeowners for Hurricane Sandy slow Erin Arvedlund Philadelphia Inquirer and Philly.com

3/1/2015

N.J. payout to homeowners for Hurricane Sandy slow
Erin Arvedlund | Philadelphia Inquirer and Philly.com


The nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center issued a scathing report in January: The state of New Jersey’s disbursement of funds for homeowners rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy is far too slow, giving out only a small fraction of the money available.

Kristine Pyzyna can vouch firsthand for how painful the process has been. More than two years after the October 2012 storm, her state-appointed contractors still haven’t finished.

And Pyzyna is lucky: She actually got a grant to rebuild.

Although money has been committed, New Jersey homeowners have received only a trickle of funds.

The most recent quarterly performance report submitted by New Jersey to HUD disclosed that $3.3 billion was provided to the state, which in turn spent just $768.4 million, according to Fair Share Housing, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Cherry Hill.

New Jersey’s primary home-rebuilding program, stuck in neutral, according to critics, is known as RREM – for Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation. About half of all eligible families have not even signed a contract to begin rebuilding.

New Jersey has spent just $219 million out of $1.1 billion allocated to RREM, the largest homeowner program for Sandy relief. (There are other programs included for renters).

Only 328 homes have been completely rebuilt as of January 2015. More than 40,000 owner-occupied homes in the state were severely damaged or destroyed by Sandy, and 15,000 families applied for RREM.

Of those 15,000 families, about 12,500 were found to be eligible. Nearly 2,000 withdrew or gave up on the grant process, leaving about 10,800 families still waiting for money as of today.

Those like Pyzyna, who received RREM grant money, often have severe problems with their state-approved contractors. An integrity monitor found that 12 out of 74 contractors for an RREM program had red flags, such as allegations of bribery, unpaid taxes, and labor law violations.

An Ocean Gate homeowner, Pyzyna explains the dysfunction of the RREM grant program; she’s still fighting with her state-appointed contractor to finish work that began in May 2014.

“It was my dream to live near the water,” she said of her Ocean County address. (Trained as a nurse and a health-care lawyer, she commutes to her job as a lawyer for the University of Pennsylvania.) “But people like us can’t even get the work done, and some are even being foreclosed upon,” because they can’t afford to live elsewhere while waiting for the home-repair grants.

“The way we are treated, they take away your dignity. The contractor, Gov. Christie, the state agency. My case manager is the only one who fought for me.”

Pyzyna’s contractors were allotted $150,000 from RREM through what was known as a Pathway C grant, half for renovation and half to elevate her house, now in a designated flood zone.

“The vast majority of Sandy contractors are those who go from storm to storm. Some are local and good, but most are disaster profiteers. They scam the grants,” Pyzyna said. She joined a group called New Jersey Organizing Project (www.facebook.com/NewJerseyOP) that calls on the governor to speed up funding and release money for repairs.

In Pyzyna’s case, her contractor stopped work after she complained about the quality of the repairs, including cracked gas lines, circuits that blew throughout the house – “all of which they tried to charge me to replace,” she said. “They shut down the job site and wouldn’t file occupancy permits with the Borough of Ocean Gate.”

She hired a surveyor separately so she could get an occupancy certificate and move back into the house.

Most recently, her state-appointed contractor installed baseboard heat with coils that didn’t heat properly, Pyzyna said. Since she lives in the house full time, “I’d like it to be warmer than 56 degrees,” she said with a laugh.

She is about to file an appeal with the Department of Community Affairs to reinstall the heating.

“Everything has been a fight, and I’m still stuck with [the contractors].”