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8/29/2015 GRIFFIN:  Meet housing needs of all Sandy victims, Asbury Park Press

Nearly three years after superstorm Sandy devastated New Jersey’s Shore communities, tourists have returned to enjoy our beaches and sample frozen custard and cotton candy on our coast’s restored boardwalks.

But while our tourism industry recovers and multimillion dollar homes with oceanfront views return to the once-devastated Shore, thousands of working families — the backbone of our economy — are being left behind by an uneven rebuilding effort threatening to price them out of the Jersey Shore.

Despite billions of dollars in federal funds allocated to help New Jersey recover, a report by the Fair Share Housing Center found that more than 15,000 families are still waiting to have their homes rebuilt. Renters, minorities, working- and middle-class families and people with disabilities still too often have not recovered from the impact of the 2012 storm.

To make matters worse, a new wave of foreclosures in Sandy-impacted communities is now threatening the rebuilding progress already made. In the first 10 months of 2014, 305 Sandy-affected homes in Monmouth and Ocean counties alone were pushed into foreclosure. Many of these homeowners fell behind on their mortgage payments because of added financial burdens placed on their families by disaster recovery efforts.

Families found themselves paying for both a mortgage and a rental unit, double-dipping into their monthly incomes to maintain a roof over their heads and the payments on the damaged house they had once called their home. Many of the homes destroyed by Sandy were being rented by families with children in local school districts and parents who worked for local businesses.

In this context, a series of recent New Jersey court decisions reaffirming our state’s fair housing policies hold the key to ensure that we build a Jersey Shore that’s for all New Jerseyans. In New Jersey, providing adequate housing for working families and people with disabilities isn’t just an ethical obligation — it’s a legal responsibility. Our state Constitution requires municipalities to provide their fair share of housing opportunities to ensure that every New Jerseyan has access to a decent home.

Yet in recent years, the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing, which is charged with enforcing the state’s housing laws, failed to do its job — in large part because Gov. Chris Christie tried, in his own words, to “gut” the agency based on his belief that wealthy towns should be able to keep everyone else out.

Finally, in March, the state Supreme Court said New Jersey’s families could no longer wait. In a unanimous decision the court reaffirmed in the strongest possible terms our state’s commitment to affordable housing and broke the logjam by giving independent judges oversight.

This should translate into real help for Sandy survivors by opening the path toward new housing opportunities. What we now need are political leaders willing to step up and fulfill their moral and legal obligations to rebuild the Shore.

Where towns have worked cooperatively with housing advocates and Sandy survivors to prevent displacement by creating new housing opportunities, we’re starting to see results. In Toms River, officials worked closely with developers to provide 72 affordable rental opportunities that is being funded in part by a $5 million grant using federal disaster funds.

But too many municipalities are still working to delay and frustrate progress toward creating a Jersey Shore that has a place for working families. In Berkeley, township officials are trying to stop an 88-unit housing complex that would be located on Route 9. The project, which is being financed in part by federal recovery funds, would give Sandy survivors first crack at leases. And Little Egg Harbor is trying to delay a 60-unit rental development for working families that would also be financed by federal funds. These delays mean that worthy projects down the Shore risk losing funding in favor of shovel-ready developments in other parts of the region.

We need to send our local officials a message: Nobody, including working-class families, should be permanently displaced from the Shore they once called home. Those who live and work in our coastal communities deserve the same opportunities to rebuild, to reconstruct, to regain the lives they once had.

Charles Griffin, of Little Egg Harbor, is a member of the New Jersey Organizing Project, a grassroots, regional campaign to fight for a full, equitable recovery after Superstorm Sandy. Robert Suarez, also of Little Egg Harbor and another member of the project, contributed to this oped.

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