TRENTON — Victims of Hurricane Sandy unleashed a torrent of frustration and anger at state lawmakers on Thursday over the continued slow recovery process that they say is leading to foreclosures, wasting public money and failing to plan for future storms.
Two days shy of the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy pummeling major swaths of New Jersey, the state Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Reform and Federal Relations committees listened to stories of heartbreak, financial ruin and poor planning that victims say continues long after the state’s worst natural disaster.
With speaker after speaker complaining about the slow recovery process, victims hammered at the state’s Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program, a federally-funded plan designed to help homeowners pay for repairs but has been fraught with problems from the start.
Sandy victims just want to go home
The state’s main housing recovery program came under attack because of slow progress.
Adam Gordon, associate director of the Fair Share Housing Center, said that of the thousands of people who were expected to have been helped through that program by now, only 699 cases have been completed.
He said that of the 15,000 property owners applied for the RREM program, 12,500 were deemed eligible. Since then, thousands have dropped out of the program for unknown reasons, leaving just under 7,000 property owners still moving through that process, Gordon said.
“We are far from finishing the job,” Gordon said, noting the state expects to spend all the Sandy aid funding by the end of this fiscal year next June.
“We need to finish the job because these funds were supposed to make people whole and we’re just too far away…from making sure that happens,” he said.
One woman said that after following all the RREM rules and being back in her home for two years, she recently received a letter claiming she owes $51,000 to various Sandy aid programs without any explanation.
“I don’t know what these numbers are and I honestly have no idea how I’m going to repay them,” she said.
Joe Karcz, who’s still not back in his home in the Beach Haven West section of Stafford Township, asked for a law granting Sandy victims waivers from the financial penalties of early withdrawals from their pensions.
Sandy Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, called the renewal of an effort to place a 3-year moratorium on foreclosures for Sandy victims, to replace the bill Gov. Chris Christie vetoed in January.
“Because the process took so long, they are then in a position to lose their home,” Berger said. “That’s unconscionable.”
Allowing foreclosures to occur on homes that had been repaired by Sandy aid would be a waste of public funds, she said.
Susan Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group, said one in five calls her organization gets weekly is from a Sandy victim facing foreclosure.
Paul Jeffrey, president of the Ortley Beach Voters and Tax Payers Association, criticized the state for failing to plan for future storms beyond a massive beach replenishment project for the coastline.
He cited the example of the former Joey Harrison’s Surf Club in town, which was destroyed by Sandy. The oceanfront property is now for sale, but the state won’t buy it through its Green Acres program because it instead wants large swaths rather than individual parcels.
Yet the site is approved for 16 oceanfront condominiums which will most likely be destroyed in another major storm, Jeffrey said.
“The recovery is far from complete…We think it’s at least three to five years before the tax base is back and we’re fully recovered,” Jeffrey said. “And that’s scary because you have heard and we all know (that) funds are drying up.”
MaryAnn Spoto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MaryAnnSpoto. Find NJ.com on Facebook.