Two years after Sandy, recovery still too far away for many
Oct. 29, 2014 — The Fair Share Housing Center, which has led efforts in New Jersey to try to get recovery efforts to comply with the obligation to affirmatively further fair housing, issued the following statement today:
Anniversary Should Lead to Renewed Focus on Getting Funds Out, Fairness, and Transparency
Two years after Sandy devastated communities from the Shore to the Meadowlands, the vast majority of federal housing recovery dollars remain unspent, and thousands of New Jerseyans are left wondering when they will get back home.
“The nightmare of Sandy is still a day to day reality for too many New Jerseyans,” Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC) Staff Attorney Adam Gordon said. “It is well past time to accelerate the recovery by making sure the money gets out the door for renters and homeowners, funds are distributed fairly, and fixing ongoing problems with transparency about how programs work and how funds are spent.”
In January, FSHC released a “The State of Sandy Recovery” report with the Latino Action Network, NJ NAACP, and Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, focusing on three areas: (1) fair funding for renters and homeowners impacted by Sandy; (2) ensuring all communities impacted by Sandy have fair access to recovery funds; and (3) a fully transparent recovery. While FSHC plans to fully update this report in January 2015, two years after Sandy it is worth looking at what has changed - and what hasn’t - since this report was released:
Fair Funding for Renters and Homeowners Impacted by Sandy
In January, we noted that while renters experienced 40 percent of the damage from Sandy, they only were targeted to receive 25 percent of federal funding. We also noted that for renters and homeowners alike “far more, and far better targeted, funding is needed to rebuild.”
Today, funding for both renters and homeowners has been increased, in large part as a result of the fair housing settlement between FSHC, the Latino Action Network, NJ NAACP, the State of New Jersey, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development signed in May. $594 million will be targeted across all three rounds of federal Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding to the Fund for Restoration of Multi-Family Housing (FRM), the single biggest rental recovery program. A total of $1.36 billion will be targeted across all three rounds to the RREM program, the single biggest homeowner recovery program. These increases in funding will help serve a greater number of renters and homeowners impacted by Sandy.
However, the pace of getting these funds out is simply too slow, and has left both renters and homeowners in a bind as they run out of funds for temporary accommodations while permanent solutions are still far off. Of $1.1 billion in RREM funds the State has approved to distribute to homeowners, only $220 million is in the hands of homeowners. The situation in rental funds is even worse: from the rental programs designed to provide the most immediate help, only $687,317 of $40 million has been spent from the Landlord Incentive Program and only $9,339,332 of $70 million from the Landlord Rental Repair Program which are both for smaller landlords to provide housing in the short term for displaced renters. And most homes to be developed under the FRM program as replacement housing for renters are one year or more from becoming available.
“Quite simply, the pace of fund distribution needs to move much more rapidly,” Gordon said. “And there needs to be transparency around what families need to do to get to the finish line.”
Ensuring All Communities Impacted by Sandy Have Fair Access to Recovery Funds
As the report in January noted, funds for both homeowners and renters have not tracked where damage occurred.
RREM funding for homeowners has missed many impacted communities outside of the shore - such as manufactured home parks hit hard in Moonachie - and those communities tend to be lower-income, and more heavily Latino and African-American. Part of this impact comes from people improperly being denied - 80% of rejected applications reviewed by the state were deemed to be eligible (but most impacted applications were not reviewed). White applicants were 2.5 times as likely to be approved for aid as African American applicants, and 50 percent more likely than Hispanic applicants. And applicants whose primary language is Spanish were given misinformation or no information about the application process on websites and at program centers.
Programs for renters have not gone to the areas with the most impact. So far only 8% of FRM money has been awarded to Ocean County and 14% to Monmouth County even though 30% of the damage was in Ocean County for renters and 22% in Monmouth. In contrast, Essex County got 17% of the money to date even though they had about 1% of the damage.
Going forward, both of these issues are supposed to be addressed by the fair housing settlement mentioned above. Every rejected application from RREM is to be reviewed by next month, and people who were improperly rejected will get funding. And a new program will reach low- and moderate-income homeowners missed in RREM. Additionally, FRM money will be targeted based on damage - and prior shortfalls will be made up for by increased funding in Monmouth and Ocean Counties going forward - with the first round of awards under the settlement to be announced in January.
“Recovery money to date too often has not been distributed based on which communities have the greatest need,” Gordon said. “We hope that over the next several months, this direction will start to change.”
A Fully Transparent Recovery
The January report noted that applicants to recovery programs had problems getting clear information about what they needed to do to secure recovery dollars. FSHC, by that point, had filed multiple lawsuits against the State for its failure to respond to Open Public Records Act requests on Sandy, leading to the release of critical data such as the disparity in approval rates among African-American and Latino applicants discussed above.
There are still many problems with transparency. The fair housing agreement requires the information FSHC had to sue about on who is getting funding to be released on a quarterly basis. But additional issues have arisen. Applicants to RREM and other key programs still don’t know the full set of steps they need to take to get funding and are frequently in positions where they think they have done everything and then are asked for additional documents.
Critically, much information about the issues with Sandy recovery appear to be contained in integrity monitor reports for which the State paid nearly $10 million to Cohn Reznick, a consulting firm. The Christie administration refuses to release these reports and instead spent additional money to hire a second integrity monitor, Navigant, to review these reports without releasing them to the public. Given that Navigant found significant issues that remain unaddressed from these reports, all integrity monitor reports should be released immediately.
“Too often, people impacted by Sandy find themselves in a bureaucratic maze with no end,” Gordon said. “The Christie Administration needs to commit to a clear and public pathway of what needs to be done to get money, and release the integrity monitor reports it has hidden.”