4/20/15 Nightmares come true: RREM contractor left home to rot Russ Zimmer Asbury Park Press

opens in a new window4/20/15 Nightmares come true: RREM contractor left home to rot Russ Zimmer Asbury Park Press

Ninety days, in and out. That’s what Robin Buck was expecting when he signed up in September to have his home elevated through a state-sponsored superstorm Sandy rebuilding program.

That prospect was shattered in March.

Buck, 34, left his family’s home in Long Branch to a contractor in the Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program in November. The state-assigned contractor not only failed to lift the home as promised, but also neglected to winterize the property — leading to at least $14,000 in damages, according to one estimate. Buck had already spent $42,000 in 2014 restoring the first floor of his home after Sandy.

For Buck and his family, their situation continues to take an emotional toll. They are unsure where they will live when their current lease expires and do not how they will pay both their mortgage and rent.

Buck said he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth” when he was accepted into the RREM program, but that opportunity backfired. Seneca-SmartJack, his RREM contractor, took the keys to his perfectly liveable $189,000 home on Nov. 1. Six months later, the contractor relinquished it with so much new damage that construction officials talked about knocking it down and starting over.

“I thought going through the state with Pathway C (the now-closed option homeowners could select if they did not want to manage their own project) was going to be this great experience. The state would have control of everything, everything was going to be smooth. That’s what I thought,” he said. “The lack of communication, the not showing up, nothing happening — that’s the strangest thing to me.”

His house was not the only one that Seneca-SmartJack neglected to winterize, according to the state. It’s not immediately clear what, if any, payment was made from RREM to Seneca-SmartJack. Numerous calls to Seneca were not returned. SmartJack declined to comment.

Buck, who was living in the two-story home with his fiancée and their three children, said he was following the instructions of Seneca-SmartJack to the letter when he moved out and had the utilities disconnected.

When the water was shut off, as part of the utility disconnection, water that needed to be drained remained in the pipes. When temperatures dropped, the pipes froze and burst. Then when the broken pipes thawed, the water saturated the first-floor ceiling, ruining the walls and flooring that Buck had just spent thousands of dollars replacing.

That’s not all. With the power disconnected, the sump pump was no longer siphoning any rain or ground water that collected in the dirt-floor basement. The result is a pool of stagnant water that Buck says softened the earth and undermined his foundation, causing a noticeable tilting of the southwest corner of his home.

In December, Buck — having not seen the interior of his home in a month and having heard nothing from the contractor — sent an email to his project manager warning that just such a scenario could unfold. The state had distributed a notice in November to Pathway C contractors reminding them that “builders are responsible for all home weatherization and winterizing aspects for their assigned projects.”

The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which is in charge of distributing most of the federal Sandy aid, says four homeowners, including Buck, “sustained damage as a result of improper winterization,” according to department spokeswoman Lisa Ryan.

“Seneca-SmartJack will be contacting the impacted homeowners this week, if they haven’t already, to discuss compensation,” she said on April 14. “Seneca-SmartJack will provide payment directly to the homeowners to cover these costs.”

Seneca-SmartJack, a state-approved contractor within the RREM program, was a temporary business alliance between SCMC, a division of Seneca Holdings which is the investment arm of the Seneca Nation of Indians, and SmartJack, a New Jersey-based home-elevation firm that started after Sandy.

Seneca had been looking to remove itself from the RREM program since at least December, when they told the DCA they intended to withdraw from the program, according to Ryan. SmartJack attempted to remain in the program, but was denied because it failed to meet the DCA’s standard for financial wherewithal.

Buy PhotoBuck points to water stains in the ceiling of his kitchen. Rob Buck was told to leave his home and have the utilities disconnected by Nov. 1, 2014 so that the home could be elevated, but the RREM-approved contractor never touched his home, including winterizing it as they were supposed to do. The rebuilt first floor and basement were flooded when pipes froze and burst and now the home might have to be torn down. Long Branch, NJ Wednesday, April 8, 2015 Doug Hood/Staff Photographer @dhoodhood (Photo: Gannett)

Buck said he didn’t know Seneca intended to leave the program until March, when he was assigned a new builder.

On April 14, Buck got an estimate — $14,000 to fix the damages caused by the water leaks — from CBI Shaw, which was hired by the state to manage RREM projects on behalf of homeowners. However, Buck doesn’t believe they’ve captured the full extent of the damages.

Within seven days of meeting with the Asbury Park Press, Buck said Seneca pledged to send him a check for that amount.

Charities paid $15,000 for the family to live at a Beachfront North apartment. The funds could have been given to others in need because Buck and his family could have stayed in their home the whole time — instead of turning it over to the contractors, who did nothing.

The Monmouth County Long Term Recovery Group, an umbrella organization whose mission is to assist residents through the Sandy recovery, and the Salvation Army paid for the rental so the family could continue making their $2,056 monthly mortgage payment.

“It’s not uncommon through the process,” said Greg Russo, spokesman for the recovery group. “What we’ve seen so far is that sometimes things don’t go the way they’re planned.”

The family’s lease expires in the middle of May and the apartment has already been promised to a summer rental, meaning they’ll have to move. Where they will go — they can’t go home, there’s not enough room at his dad’s house, and they don’t have enough money for a rental and the mortgage — is a question without an answer.

Russo said the recovery group, which generally tries to limit rental assistance to people who will be home in under than six months, recognizes the unique circumstances that have left Buck in this position and they are exploring options to extend his rental assistance.