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opens in a new window5/11/15 Slowly rebuilding after Sandy, but thousands still displaced while working with N.J. program Kim Lueddeke Bergen Record

More than 2½ years after Superstorm Sandy caused a multibillion-dollar path of destruction, just one-eighth of homeowners — or about 1,000 — in the state’s primary rebuilding program have completed construction and returned home.
While that figure represents a marked uptick in progress since the end of last year, when just 330 had completed reconstruction, it amounts to just a fraction of the approximately 8,300 homeowners enrolled in the state’s Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation Program, or RREM.

RREM Grants
Here are the amounts awarded and disbursed under the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program, or RREM, to the nine counties hit hardest by Superstorm Sandy.

“It is welcomed that the number has gone up so much in the first quarter of the year,” said Susan Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, one of several such groups formed after Sandy to help storm victims. “But the reality is, we’re coming up on two years of the program and we still have a long way to go.”

Critics say the program, which provides grants of up to $150,000 to eligible homeowners, was hampered by a rollout marred by delays, lost paperwork and ever-changing instructions. In early 2014, amid a wave of criticism over how the program was being handled, the state fired the Louisiana firm — Hammerman and Gainer Inc., or HGI — that had been hired to run it.

Homeowners have also run into roadblocks like lengthy waits for municipal approvals — headaches common during any rebuilding process but made worse due to the sheer number of Sandy victims trying to rebuild at the same time.

Recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina were marred by rampant government waste and fraud, resulting in hundreds of millions of aid dollars unaccounted for. In the wake of that bungle, federal officials have said tighter spending controls were implemented and far fewer cases of fraud have been reported post-Sandy.

Despite homeowners’ complaints about red tape, state figures show the rate of progress has accelerated in recent months, with the number of people back in their homes increasing threefold since January.

That number is expected to continue to climb, thanks to the return of warmer weather and improvements made to the program since it was launched in May 2013. Approximately 40 homes are being completed each week and more than $5 million a week is being disbursed, said Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, which has taken over the program.

“The progress we’re making with the RREM program is a direct result of the state’s efforts to simplify the program for eligible homeowners,” Ryan said.

For instance, Ryan said, homeowners didn’t want to have to travel to the Housing Recovery Center in their county, so the state made it possible for them to mail in documents and work remotely with their housing adviser. They can also now request an advance payment of up to half of their award as soon as they sign their grant agreement and select a contractor.

Businesses and local governments — from builders and architects to zoning officials and the utility companies — have also ramped up efforts to meet the increased demands of Sandy victims trying to rebuild and elevate their homes, said Ryan.

State officials say they have also cleared the rebuilding program’s waiting list in preparation for the third and final round of financing from the federal government. The Christie administration announced late last month that it had received approval to distribute $881.9 million in federal disaster recovery money, $226.5 million of which will go toward the RREM program. State officials said they expected to be able to assist everyone still on the waiting list with this latest transfusion of aid.

By comparison, as of April 27 only 597 homes had been fully repaired out of about 20,000 applicants in New York City’s Build It Back program, which assists homeowners, landlords and tenants whose homes were damaged by Sandy, according to the city’s figures.

Red tape, unexpected costs

But even with the recent progress, many homeowners are still struggling to return to normalcy.

Some are living with friends and family, while others are in apartments, often forced to pay not only their monthly rent but also a mortgage and property taxes on an uninhabitable home, Marticek said. Some homeowners have been lucky enough to be able to remain in their homes, but have had to relocate to the upper floors because of the damage to the first floor.

Many complain that after 2½ years, they are still wrestling with red tape and unexpected costs.

Consider Lisa Stevens. Her Little Egg Harbor home took on 2 feet of water during Sandy. For about two months afterward, she lived in the house without heat or hot water.

Stevens’ initial application for rebuilding money got lost. She appealed, and won. But in an illustration of the confusion homeowners say they experience, Stevens said on the same day she received a notice that her appeal was successful, she also received a letter of denial. In the end, she received her grant.

Stevens elected to use a state-approved builder because, she said, she believed doing so would mean a quick turnaround in rebuilding her home. But she quickly ran into problems: She was told it would cost an estimated $368,000 to rebuild and raise her home, which — after RREM, flood insurance and what is called “gap” funding — meant she would have had to put up $100,000 of her own money.

“I said, there’s just no way I can do this,” said Stevens, who is retired.

She asked how much it would cost to simply raise her home — to elevate it beyond likely future flood levels — and was told $173,000, a figure she says she could afford.

But then, after preliminary building studies were conducted, she was told her home would have to be placed on helical pilings — large steel shafts that are screwed into the ground to support the building — which would add $80,000 to $90,000 to the cost.

Stevens balked again. This time, she said, she was told to switch to the program’s Pathway B, which allows applicants to choose their own builder. She put in a request and says she waited months for a response. She was finally notified at the beginning of the year that her request had been approved and in February she signed the official paperwork allowing her to switch to Pathway B, she said. She got her first check on April 20 — nearly one year after she formally accepted her grant.

“It’s a full-time job,” Stevens said of navigating the state’s rebuilding program. “If I wasn’t retired, I wouldn’t be able to do this. … It’s physically draining, it’s emotionally draining. There’s so many aspects to the stressors that go into this.”

Criticism by advocates

Advocates, like Adam Gordon of the Fair Share Housing Center, which has criticized the state’s recovery efforts, say more needs to be done. Gordon called on the state to set benchmarks for when money will be distributed and construction completed.

“By the third-year anniversary, are we going to be half done? A quarter done?” Gordon said. “I think there’s been a lack of clarity as to what their trajectory will be.”

The “overwhelming majority” of homeowners in the program are rebuilding with their own contractors and therefore can establish their own project timelines, Ryan said. Once they pick a contractor and sign their grant, they can request the first half of their money. But after the state sends the check, it is the homeowner’s responsibility to manage the rebuilding of the home, Ryan said.

Housing advocates have also raised concern that the number of homeowners in the program seems to be declining.

Approximately 12,000 homeowners were initially deemed eligible for RREM grants. About 3,700 have since withdrawn from the program.

“I’m wondering, was it so hard, so un-navigable, that we’re losing people?” said Amanda Devecka-Rinear of the New Jersey Organizing Project, which made news recently when members confronted Governor Christie on a trip to Iowa.

Applicants can either voluntarily choose to leave the program or be administratively withdrawn because they have accepted a buyout or a hazard mitigation grant from the state Department of Environmental Protection, or because they have not responded to repeated attempts to contact them, Ryan said.

Applicants who withdraw voluntarily do not have to give a reason for leaving, Ryan said.

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