6/22/15 Assembly acts on bill to prevent Sandy foreclosures Russ Zimmer Asbury Park Press

6/22/15 Assembly acts on bill to prevent Sandy foreclosures Russ Zimmer Asbury Park Press

A proposal that would protect homes damaged by superstorm Sandy from entering into foreclosure for three years has advanced in the New Jersey Assembly.

A substitute version of the bill, which would affix a foreclosure ban into 2018 for most homes in the troubled Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program, was submitted minutes before a Housing and Community Development Committee hearing in Trenton Monday afternoon. The substitute bill then passed unanimously.

An Asbury Park Press investigation published in February found that at least 300 Sandy-affected homes in Monmouth and Ocean counties entered foreclosure in the first 10 months of 2014 alone.

Homeowners who spoke to the Press for that story indicated that months of paying the rent for their current home as well as the mortgage on a Sandy-damaged home had drained their bank accounts.

The speed at which the 8,300 people enrolled in RREM have been able to access their grants, begin rebuilding or elevating and move back home has been a serious complication for homeowners like Nancy Wirtz, a single mother from Forked River.

“I’m very lost. I don’t know what to do,” she told the committee. “I’m paying more in rent than I would in a mortgage payment and I don’t have a home to go back to right now.”

She’s not alone, community advocates say.

“I could give you the name of five people who are okay, compared to everyone else still going through (RREM),” said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, executive director of the New Jersey Organizing Project.

Since the bill was introduced in February, “hundreds if not thousands of homes have been pushed into foreclosure,” estimated Staci Berger, president of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.

Michael Affuso, a lobbyist with the New Jersey Bankers Association, was the only speaker to address the committee in opposition to the bill. By not being able to pursue foreclosures, banks were being asked to assume a burden they didn’t create, he said.

Bill Penkethman, a Sea Girt attorney who represents homeowners in foreclosure suits, said about one-third of his cases have a connection to Sandy. He called the bill’s passage “the right thing to do.”

“These aren’t deadbeats,” he said to the Press on Monday. “These are people that got caught up in a disaster, and it kind of seems like they were forgotten to me.”

The bill will next go before the full Assembly. The Senate’s companion version was introduced in December and passed out of committee by a 5-0 vote.