LONG BRANCH –Six years after Superstorm Sandy, hundreds of New Jersey families are still not home, and advocates who work with Sandy survivors tell Kane In Your Corner some of them appear to be “stuck”, lacking the ability to “cross the finish line”.
Robin Buck of Long Branch has only a vacant lot where his house used to be. “It was only 1,400 square feet,” he says wistfully, “But it was my 1,400.”
Sandy flooded Buck’s house with 5 feet of water and destroyed the foundation, leaving him, his wife and their three teenagers with no place to live. Since then, they’ve moved between motels and furnished apartments, even spending a winter jammed into an unheated pop-up camper.
Buck thought his luck had changed when he was approved for a reconstruction grant, but three contractors later, construction has yet to begin. Buck says the first two contractors were unable to meet their obligations. He says the third, hired to build a modular home, had its plans initially approved, then disapproved by the state when it was belatedly discovered the home would not meet FEMA’s energy efficiency guidelines. The fourth and current contractor, the nonprofit Affordable Housing Alliance, tore down the old house in April but has not begun laying the foundation for the new one.
Once construction starts, Buck is not entirely sure how he’ll pay for his new house. He has $132,000 in grant money remaining. The new house will cost $235,000. He’s hoping a nonprofit will help him make up the difference.
“Nothing about this program has gone right so far,” Buck says. “Not a single thing.”
The Bucks’ story may be an extreme case, but hundreds of grant recipients are in similar situations. More than 8,600 homeowners received grants after Sandy, but only about 7 in 10 have gone through the process and completed construction. The rest are either still waiting or dropped out of the program. The New Jersey Division of Community Affairs claims the success rate is higher, nearly 85 percent, but it does not count the more than 1,200 families that dropped out of the program.
Six years after Sandy, Jim and Carol Ferraioli feel like their lives are a lot like their house in Middletown: up in the air. They received a house-lifting grant, but their contractor, selected by the state, walked away, leaving the house on temporary pilings, where it suffered irreparable damage. The contractor, Jamie Lawson, pleaded guilty to fraud over the summer, and could be released from prison in a little over two years.
“He’ll be out of jail before our house even gets done,” Carol Ferraioli says.
The Ferraiolis have been reimbursed for the grant money that was lost, and their grant was increased to the maximum of $150,000. But that still won’t be enough to replace the house. The plans, currently being reviewed by the township, call for a significantly smaller one.
Amanda Devecka-Rinear, executive director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, a nonprofit that works with Sandy families, says the more time passes, the harder it becomes for families to complete construction. The group is calling on the Murphy administration to create a new program to assist families who lack the funds to finish construction, using some of the $1.2 billion in federal grant money that New Jersey has not yet spent.
“There’s no more help,” Devecka-Rinear says. “There’s no more free legal services. There are no more organizations working on this. There’s us and a couple of other groups, but that’s it. So people are really kind of on their own now.”