Struggling Ida victims were entitled to 18 months of rental aid. Fewer than 300 in NY and NJ got it.

opens in a new windowA decade after Hurricane Struggling Ida victims were entitled to 18 months of rental aid. Fewer than 300 in NY and NJ got it. | Gothamist | November 28, 2022

[See Also: opens in a new windowStruggling Ida victims were entitled to 18 months of rental aid. Fewer than 300 in NY and NJ got it. | NJ Spotlight News | December 1, 2022]

BY: Karen Yi

When the  opens in a new windowremnants of Hurricane Ida struck in  opens in a new windowSeptember 2021, FEMA distributed short-term housing aid to 19,500 displaced residents in New Jersey and New York — enough to pay up to two months of rent.

But Gothamist found fewer than 300 — about 1.5% — of those New Jersey and New York residents  opens in a new windowreceived the additional rental assistance FEMA offered, meant to help disaster victims for as much as 18 months after the storm. The agency said it doesn’t know how many people applied for continued aid, but advocates said most homeowners they heard from were never told the extra assistance was available in the first place.

Some residents said they were forced to take on debt or stay in uninhabitable homes more than a year after the storm. Lawmakers and victim advocates in New Jersey said it’s unacceptable that such a small proportion of residents received extended rental help, and are calling on FEMA to explain why.

“I find it deeply troubling that many families have struggled to receive the federal assistance they need from a program that was designed for them,” U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone said in a statement to Gothamist. “Many households received emergency rental assistance that supported them for the initial two-month period after the storm, but I am concerned that families are not getting the support they need one year later.”

Some survivors of the storm said without the extra aid, they couldn’t afford to pay rent while also paying mortgages on their damaged homes during repairs. Some are facing foreclosure; others used credit cards to cover their expenses and eventually moved back into their properties before repairs were complete.

“We all feel left behind and forgotten,” said Maryann Morris, 43, whose  opens in a new windowranch-style home in Manville, New Jersey, was inundated during Ida. Morris said she applied for extended rental assistance but was denied after FEMA told her the supporting documentation she uploaded was too blurry.

Morris said she spent $26,000 to rent an apartment for a year but couldn’t afford to keep paying, so she moved back into her house, where she still doesn’t have a kitchen and can’t cook for her 8-year-old daughter.

“You’re mourning memories, the loss of family heirlooms. You’re mourning the loss of things that happened that were happy and good at your home,” she said. “You add that and compound it with the frustration of the government being unable to actually give you answers, it makes it all worse.”

FEMA said it allocated $41 million in initial rental assistance to 10,700 New Jersey applicants and another $2.3 million for continued assistance to 172 applicants in the state. In New York, 8,800 applicants received initial assistance and 124 were approved for continued assistance, the agency said.

Spokesperson Don Caetano said in an email the small number of applicants who received additional rental aid could be due to several reasons, such as “applicants no longer needing rental assistance or that applicants were able to move back into their pre-disaster housing.”

Homes are seen in the immediate aftermath of damage from the remnants of Hurricane Ida, in September 2001. More than a year later, many residents still haven’t received the extended rental aid a FEMA program offers.
Karen Yi/Gothamist

According  opens in a new windowto FEMA, anyone who received the initial assistance, but whose primary home was still uninhabitable, who wasn’t receiving other aid for housing and who couldn’t afford housing without help would have been eligible for additional aid. Caetano said applicants who have property damage worth more than the initial rental money they received were sent applications to request additional help with future rent payments.

But advocates with the New Jersey Organizing Project said they don’t know of any cases where that happened.

Meghan Mertyris, the Hurricane Ida recovery organizer at the project, said most of the survivors she works with still need help. She said many didn’t know where to apply or that the extra funds existed. And when they tried calling the FEMA hotline for help, they’d wait hours with no answer.

“After people got their first lump sum from FEMA, they should have been offered an application to apply to this extended rental money. And nobody we know of was given the application,” she said. “It’s not that people were denied. They didn’t even have the chance to get denied or approved.”

FEMA also said additional staff were also brought on to alleviate long waits on its hotlines, which were inundated following the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Florida in 2021, the same year as Ida.

Those who applied for initial aid also have until March 2023 to request continued rental assistance.

Bailey Lawrence, a spokesman for Gov. Phil Murphy, said the New Jersey Organizing Project flagged several cases of issues with FEMA rental assistance to the governor’s office “and we immediately raised those cases with our FEMA counterparts to ensure that those individuals were able to tap into available resources and were provided with appropriate information.”

“Outside these individual cases, New Jersey is working with FEMA to determine whether there were any issues with rental assistance post-Ida given the relatively small number of individuals who received beyond two months of rental assistance,” he said.

FEMA offered a similar two-step housing assistance process after Sandy, a decade ago. About 135,000 New York and New Jersey residents received initial rental assistance, for two months. About 10,100 of those residents — or about 7.5% — got additional assistance for up to another 18 months under the Continued Temporary Housing Assistance program. In New Jersey, more than 10% moved onto the continued assistance.

“The amount of primary homes that were impacted by Ida is actually very, very comparable to the amount of primary homes that were affected by Sandy, and yet we are not seeing the same response that we saw during Sandy, in terms of adequate resources and response,” Mertyris said, adding that timing was crucial and by not having the money months ago, survivors’ choices were limited.

Stephanie Hosgood, 38, said she moved back into her Manville home about a month after the storm. She was staying in a hotel with her husband, toddler twins and 6-year-old but couldn’t afford a rental while she fixed up her house.

“We have nowhere else to go. We can’t rent a place because renting it, we wouldn’t even know where to even begin with that. We also thought rental assistance was for the renters,” she said, adding, “we felt like we really just didn’t even have a choice. We didn’t have hot water or heat yet, but we came back.”

U.S. Sen. Rob Menendez said the last thing storm victims need is to navigate through red tape.

“The numbers show that many Ida survivors were unable to access or were unaware of continued benefits. FEMA should immediately reach out to these homeowners directly to ensure they receive the benefits they are eligible for,” he said in a statement to Gothamist. “Disaster relief should be simple and easy to access and what we’ve seen so far is unacceptable.”

The New Jersey Organizing Project wants FEMA to assign case managers to Ida survivors to ensure they get the aid they are eligible for, extend the period of rental assistance and provide retroactive rental assistance to residents.

Mertyris said long-term reforms to disaster recovery will be crucial as climate change threatens stronger, more frequent storms.

“One of the reasons this disaster recovery system right now is functioning so badly is it was not designed to address this many disasters at one time,” she said.

The form to apply for continued rental assistance can be found  opens in a new windowhere. Residents can also call 1-800-621-3362 or mail FEMA a request at P.O. Box 10055, Hyattsville, MD 20782-8055.

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