A hulking white RV sticks out on Eric Vaughn’s driveway.
His two children could be heard playing inside, their arms flailing from behind tinted windows.
The neighbors don’t mind the 34-foot mobile home, says the 42-year-old single father.
“They’re OK with it, they say however long we need,” Vaughn adds Thursday from his porch in Manville.
Vaughn’s gutted home behind him has been “unlivable” since it was inundated by flooding after the remnants of Hurricane Ida walloped the state in opens in a new windowSeptember 2021. Vaughn says he is behind on his mortgage by about $70,000, due in part to financial struggles during the pandemic, but made worse after the storm.
The $8,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and insurance money he’s received so far helps, but Vaughn must wait for a possible Community Development Block Grant in order to lift his house — which he feels for safety reasons has to be done before he moves back in.
How much would he need to return home and get his life back on track?
“Altogether, including lifting the home? $300,000 to $330,000,” said Vaughn, who bought an RV — that he still owes money on — and has lived in it with his children since November 2021. It was better for his family, he said, then trying to find a place to rent.
“I pray,” said Vaughn when asked how he’s managed for more than a year. “And we’re coming up on September. That’s generally when this area floods … this has all been a nightmare.”
The Manville dad is one of many New Jersey residents who climate advocates say are still recovering from the devastation wrought by opens in a new window Ida, despite the state facing similar obstacles in the aftermath of opens in a new windowSuperstorm Sandy. Scientists predict these kinds of storms will only become opens in a new windowmore frequent and fiercer due to climate change.
Yet, they continue to put residents in difficult financial situations — sometimes forced to move out of the state, rely on friends or donations and wait years for opens in a new windowfederal recovery funds.
Even a decade after Sandy and despite millions doled out from federal and state programs, residents like Vaughn are wary of a national storm recovery system embroiled in red tape and not always easy to navigate. State and federal officials say they’ve sought to learn lessons from past natural disasters, but storm survivors argue those efforts have not been sufficient.
The latest form of at least some relief could come in a new bill, S3640, according to the New Jersey Organizing Project, a nonprofit that has long advocated for New Jerseyans to receive much-needed post-storm aid.
The new bill was introduced in February and unanimously referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee this month. It would need to be passed by both the Senate and Assembly (a companion bill, A5292, has not yet been heard in committee there) before Gov. Phil Murphy can consider signing it.
If passed, the bill would establish foreclosure protection and mortgage relief for homeowners impacted by Ida like Vaughn. Specifically, the bill would forestall mortgage payments for about a year, with an option for homeowners to request another 180 days. They would not be liable for fees or penalties during that forbearance period and be allowed to retroactively ward off mortgage payments missed since the 2021 storm. A similar opens in a new windowbill for Sandy was passed by the state in 2017.
“Even for folks who aren’t immediately facing foreclosure, getting a reprieve on mortgage payments will give them the breathing room they need to catch up on other recovery-related bills and expenses — of which there are many,” said Cameron Foster, an organizer with the New Jersey Organizing Project.
Federal aid but many in ‘precarious situations’
Following Ida, FEMA distributed short-term housing assistance of up to two months in rent payments to 19,500 displaced residents in New Jersey and New York.
However, fewer than 300 of those residents received additional available rental assistance from FEMA, the agency confirmed Thursday. After Ida, FEMA specifically allocated $41 million in initial rental assistance to 10,700 New Jersey applicants and another $2.3 million for more assistance to 172 applicants in the state, federal officials said.
Foster said while his organization did not have exact figures, they have also heard from many people who simply opted to move out of the Garden State after Ida.
“Lots of people are in precarious situations, whether living with family members (or) paying rent on top of their mortgage … Eric has said that he chose the RV because the payments for it are cheaper than it would be to get a rental, especially in the inflated rental market that we saw after Ida,” Foster said.
For Vaughn, who testified in favor of the mortgage forbearance bill during a hearing Monday in front of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs committee, help could not come soon enough.
“It would give me extra protection. I’d be federally backed,” said Vaughn, discussing the toll living in an RV has had on his children. “It’s been difficult, there’s been a lot of change. It’s been a lot for them.”
In a statement Thursday, a spokesperson with FEMA said: “FEMA continues to work with (the New Jersey Organizing Project) … to assist Hurricane Ida survivors in reviewing their rental assistance applications and adjudicating issues. We ask that anyone who would like their rental assistance case reviewed to call the FEMA hotline at (800) 621-3362.”
Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) sponsored the mortgage opens in a new windowrelief bill for Sandy victims which was signed five years after that storm. Along with Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), Singleton is one of the main sponsors for the new Ida bill as well.
“Despite federal aid, many homeowners impacted by Hurricane Ida remain financially burdened from the effects of the storm. Flooding damage from the storm necessitated costly repairs to their homes, replacement of damaged possessions, and other financial challenges,” Singleton said in an emailed statement.
“We are hopeful we can get this bill across the finish line this legislative session,” he said.
Foster said mortgage forbearance should kick in automatically for future storm victims regardless of the natural disaster.
Other issues residents continue to reckon with, Foster said, include being forced to wait for insurance payouts and threatened clawbacks from the state over aid money already spent.
There are currently 1,781 homeowners in New Jersey who owe Hurricane Sandy grant funds back, totaling $74.5 million — down from 1,887 homeowners owing $76.2 million opens in a new windowlast October around the ten-year anniversary of the storm.
“There are no residents who owe Ida grant funds back to DCA. We plan to use our experience from Sandy recovery and our partnerships with housing counselors and community organizations to limit as best we can the occurrence of Ida grant funds owed back,” New Jersey Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa M. Ryan said.
During Monday’s hearing on the new bill, Brittany Wheeler, vice president and director of government affairs at the New Jersey Bankers Association, said a one-year pause on mortgage payments instead of up to 18 months was “appropriate.”
“And should any subsequent forbearance be provided,” Wheeler told committee members, “we feel that there should be certain qualifiers and conditions in place before the automatic allowance of 180 days.”
In an emailed statement, Murphy spokesperson Tyler Jones said although the administration does not comment on pending legislation, the governor was “committed” to helping families displaced by Ida and other storms.
“With funding provided in each of his budgets and with the addition of federal aid, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) has administered several programs which have distributed millions of dollars in aid to assist those families displaced by natural disasters,” Jones said.
Vaughn, who is working with the DCA and others to seek additional financial resources, said he was told by the New Jersey Organization project that money may soon become available from the state to elevate his house.
“I will believe it when it actually gets deposited into my account,” he said.