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Monday, October 24, 2016

By Herb Jackson, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)

WASHINGTON — After weeks of hearing Gov. Chris Christie and his administration blame federal red tape for delays encountered by residents seeking grants to repair homes damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) gave the Obama administration’s top recovery official a chance to fight back Wednesday.

Pressed by Menendez, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said it was the state that gave control of a $950 million housing program to a contractor, Hammerman & Gainer Inc., that was ultimately fired for poor performance.

Donovan said that HUD “identified enough concerns” with HGI and the state’s management of the contract that a $1.4 billion round of grants due to be awarded this spring should include better performance standards and outreach to people who may have been improperly denied grants.

The hearing comes at a time when Christie’s greatest political achievement, the Sandy recovery story, is being put to the test. It also comes as Christie has blamed the federal government for months of delays in getting funds to Sandy victims.

The state Economic Development Authority has issued only about $13 million of $100 million in grants to 270 of 1,540 businesses that have applied. And problems have plagued the main rebuilding effort for homeowners, the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program, known as RREM, that offers up to $150,000 for the repair, rebuilding and raising of homes.

The Fair Share Housing Center, an organization that defends the housing rights of the state’s poor, says it found that African-Americans and Latinos were rejected at much higher rates than whites applying for the same relief. It also says there were problems with the data being used to award grants, resulting in erroneous denials. Of those who appealed denials, 80 percent were awarded money.

Donovan also said the state could have done controversial environmental and historical reviews of properties — which Christie has blamed for delaying grants and asked to have waived — earlier in the application process without facing a federal penalty. The reviews are intended to make sure that laws aimed at protecting the environment and historical attributes of a property are not violated.

No Republican senator attended the hearing of the housing subcommittee that Menendez heads, and the Christie administration declined an invitation to send a witness. As a result, Menendez and Donovan, both Democrats, and a later panel of witnesses who have already criticized the pace of recovery had an open opportunity to highlight the state’s missteps.

“The problems here have been much larger and lasted much longer than the people of New Jersey should have to accept,” Menendez said early in the hearing.