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opens in a new windowHurricane Sandy Survivors Face a New Threat — from the State – By Tom Johnson, NJ Spotlight

Demands for repayment of grants used for rebuilding, threats of foreclosure are only two of the troubles Sandy victims now have to deal with.

Hurricane Sandy is still tearing up people’s lives four years after the storm wreaked devastation up and down the coast.

Take Julie Suarez. A couple of years after settling back into her Little Egg Harbor house, she got a letter this June from the state demanding she pay back $50,000 of the $150,000 grant she received to rebuild her home after the superstorm.

Joe Karcz is fed up with moving. The disabled pipefitter still is not back in his Beach Haven West home, after relocating more than a dozen times. “You sleep in your own bed,’’ he told legislators, his voice rising, at a hearing on Sandy recovery efforts yesterday. “Try sleeping in 13 beds.’’
Paul Jeffrey is upset the state still does not have a comprehensive coastal resiliency plan four years after 99 percent of the homes in Ortley Beach suffered damage in the storm. A beach club on the water that was destroyed by the storm is up for sale, zoned for 16 oceanfront condos. “In 50 years, it will be gone,’’ he predicted.

Others at the hearing before the Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee in the State House complained of people trying to rebuild their homes while fighting foreclosure actions at the same time; of being ripped off by corrupt contractors; or of getting little or no help from the state Department of Community Affairs or federal agencies disbursing funds to recover from the storm.
During the hearing, representatives from various nonprofit groups urged the state to quickly move on legislation ( opens in a new windowA-333) — conditionally vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in the last session — that would create foreclosure protections for homeowners threatened with the loss of their homes.

“Our residents deserve so much better than what they are getting,’’ said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “There needs to be an immediate moratorium on foreclosures.’’

Probably the most contentious issue raised in the hearing was the suggestion that the state is going after residents who received rebuilding grants under RREM (Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation), seeking to recover some of the money.

Suarez said she still cannot understand why the state is asking her to repay a portion of the grant, a demand she cannot possibly afford. “There is no explanation why I have to pay it — at least that is understandable to an educated person.’’

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), the chairman of the committee, said this is the first he has heard of such tactics, but vowed to draft a bill to deal with the situation.

“Many of the stories we heard today were heartbreaking, but they were also infuriating because bureaucratic incompetence compounded an already devastating situation and made it nearly unbearable for many victims,’’ Gusciora said. “The common refrain we heard today is that the administration and the DCA, in particular, have failed Sandy victims.’’

The criticism has often been heard during the Sandy recovery process, from complaints about victims being shortchanged by insurance companies; problems navigating the application process among state and federal agencies administering grant programs; to bureaucratic mistakes.

Most recently, the federal government, in an audit, found the state failed to properly oversee a contractor hired to distribute federal aid, and suggested the state may have to reimburse the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development $43 million.

Sandy victims had little good to say about the state’s handling of the Sandy recovery at yesterday’s hearing.

“It’s a rudderless ship and you know what: The money’s running out,’’ Karcz said. “There’s no accountability.’’

The DCA did not respond to a request for comment, but has said in the past that 4,230 homes have been rebuilt. Critics, however, point out that 7,679 homes are participating in the program. “We need to focus on this group of people and make them whole,’’ said Adam Gordon of the Fair Share Housing Center.

Others were more pessimistic.

Joe Mangino of Stafford Township worries that the state has no plans to deal with climate change. “Until New Jersey develops a comprehensive plan to deal with sea-level rise, I feel that our future is nothing but a pipe dream.’’

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