Nancy and Tony Caira can finally see a way back home.
The Waretown couple has been living in limbo since superstorm Sandy flooded their 800-square-foot bungalow two houses away from Barnegat Bay. Short the money they needed to demolish and then elevate a new house, the Cairas spent nearly 84 months living in their storm-damaged home.
“We couldn’t sell our house and we couldn’t rebuild,” Nancy Caira said. “We were stuck.”
Then, on Oct. 27, 2019, two days before the seventh anniversary of Sandy, the Cairas received a lifeline: a notification that they would get $107,000 in so-called “supplemental aid,” enough money to allow them to finally demolish their house and rebuild — and elevate — a new home.
“The supplemental funding has made all the difference for us,” Nancy Caira said. The Cairas home will be demolished soon; it’s expected to take nine months to a year to rebuild.
Last April, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that the state was redirecting $100 million in disaster aid: $50 millilon would go into a supplemental fund for certain Sandy victims, and the other $50 million would be used to extend a rental assistance program for Sandy-impacted homeowners who had to move out of their homes during reconstruction or could not yet live in their wrecked houses.
The funds come from a $4.2 billion pot of money committed to New Jersey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2013. More than $1 billion of those funds have not yet been spent.
At the time Murphy announced the supplemental aid, there were still 957 homeowners in New Jersey’s signature rebuilding effort, the Reconstruction, Rehabiliation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program or its sister initiative open only to low- and moderate-income homeowners.
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As of Jan. 31, construction had been completed on 6,586 homes in the RREM program, according to the state’s Sandy Transparency site; an additional 226 houses have been completed under the program for low- and moderate-income homeowners.
But advocates say a combination of factors, including government red tape, contractor fraud, and lower-than-expected insurance payments, have prevented hundreds of Sandy victims from getting back home.
Shortly after Sandy flooded their Waretown neighborhood in October 2012, Tony Caira waded through water-filled streets to access their house. His wife feared he’d step on a live electrical wire or some other danger hidden by the flood, but she couldn’t dissuade her husband from going to their house.
Once there, he ripped out dry wall before mold could set in and tore out the storm-damaged floors. Nancy Caira said his actions allowed the couple to avoid even more damage that would have made it impossible for them to stay in their home.
“It’s been a blessing and also the curse,” Nancy Caira said. “We did not have tons of damage to our home, but there are no walls, no floors….We are lucky because we didn’t have to be displaced for seven years, (but) it’s taken it’s toll emotionally, living in a place that’s not a home anymore.”
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The couple made no improvements to the house, putting up temporary walls where soaked drywall had been removed. Like most people in the RREM program who have not yet finished construction, the Cairas faced delays in rebuilding.
In the Cairas case, their home was built in 1960 partially on wetlands, leading to a lengthy holdup before they could get cleared for rebuilding. By the time they were able to move forward, other funding sources, like grants available through nonprofit groups, had dried up, Nancy Caira said.
The couple needed more than $100,000 more to rebuild, and had run out of options for obtaining more money.
“You really didn’t know what your future held,” Nancy Caira said.
Then came news of the supplemental funding and a possible way home. Sandy advocacy groups had long lobbied for any remaining disaster aid to be shifted to homeowners who were still struggling to rebuild.
More than 500 homeowners in the RREM program applied for supplemental aid last year, according to Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, which administers the program.
As of March 3, 109 homeowners have been notified that they will receive additional money from the supplemental fund, with an average award of $66,616.
There are restrictions on who can receive money: to get supplemental aid, Sandy victims must have received the maximum RREM grant of $150,000, have to still be in the construction phase of their project, and must have an “unmet need,” as calculated by the state.
That means the homeowner needs extra money to rebuild or complete construction, beyond monies already received from RREM, flood insurance proceeds, or other grants.
The supplemental funds are distributed as forgiveable loans; homeowners are required to stay in their rebuilt houses for a minimum of five years, or they will be required to repay the money.
Ryan said 210 homeowners have been told they are not eligible for any additional funding.
“DCA continues to issue letters with the expectation that all homeowners will hear whether or not they qualify for the Supplemental Fund and the amount of their award in time for the upcoming building season,” Ryan wrote in an email.
Though they welcome the extra money, some advocates and Sandy victims are not pleased with the length of time it’s taken for the state to begin sending out award letters.
“At the end of the day it’s been a year and a half, and no one has moved forward,” said George Kasimos, founder of Stop FEMA Now, a Sandy advocacy group. “This is a unicorn, because nobody got it.”
Kasimos said he does not know of anyone who has actually received the money, although some have been notified that funds will be available for their project.
Supplemental funding is distributed after work is completed, upon submission of an unpaid invoice and all supporting documentation, according to information on the program detailed on the DCA website. So homeowners will not receive all of the money upfront.
“I know of know one, I’ve spoken to every major advocate in New Jersey,” Kasimos said. “I know of nobody who has received this funding…..we are looking for the unicorn that has received the supplemental funding.”
Toms River resident John Thompson said that while he was recently informed that he’ll receive supplemental funding, he had expected he would receive it by early fall.
Thompson, who is 70, has lived in nine different rentals in Seaside Heights since Sandy destroyed his home on the Toms River back in 2012. Like many RREM program homeowners who have not yet rebuilt, Thompson said he lost time — and money — by giving tens of thousands of dollars to a contractor who did not move forward with work on his house.
“They should have had the program ready, with what they were going to do, before they even announced this program,” Thompson said. He said he had believed he would receive funds in September, and would have been able to move forward right away with construction.
Now many of the subcontractors he had signed up for the rebuilding project have moved on to other jobs, he said.
“They are all off doing other things now,” Thompson said. “They can’t commit to come back to my house. “Basically it’s been a mess, the whole thing…..When they promised us something in a few months; it will be a full year since this was announced.”
Jody Stewart, community organizer for the New Jersey Organizing Project, said many of the group’s members have been disappointed with the time its taken to award the funds and allow Sandy victims to move foward.
At the same time, some homeowners who didn’t believe they’d ever get to rebuild will now have the chance, Stewart said.
“When the supplemental fund was announced it offered hope for many families who previously had none. In speaking with our members, the general sentiment is that the funding is not rolling out as fast as most people would like, but it is moving forward,” Stewart said.
“Though this is not an answer to everyone’s recovery we know the supplemental funding is going to get people home who didn’t have a chance before. We are getting excited as people receive their award letters and can either complete their recovery or finally start,” she added.
The organizing project was one of the advocacy groups that strongly lobbied for more money to be moved to the RREM program to assist the remaining homeowners.
“I think it could have gone quicker, it should have gone quicker,” said Elizabeth Torsiello, a Ventnor resident who just recently tore down the flood-damaged condominium where she and her husband live. “It’s not anybody’s fault, other than bureaucracy.”
With about $100,000 in supplemental flooding, Torsiello thinks the couple will finally be able to rebuild and elevate their house. She said the couple received a low payout from their flood insurance and then had problems with a contractor which prevented them from demolishing their duplex and beginning rebuilding sooner.
“I am so grateful for this supplemental fund,” said Torsiello, who is living in Egg Harbor City until construction is completed. “Without it, we would have lost everything but at the same time, I am bitter. We all had insurance that we paid for, and then, when something happened, they didn’t want to pay out. We’re just average working people, and this has been very difficult.”