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.
Menendez later said he was not trying to blame the state for problems, just lay out facts and see where service could be improved. If his questioning had found that the federal government was to blame for the fired contractor, for example, he said, he would have been criticizing Donovan. As it is, he said, he still expects HUD to require better performance with the next round of grants.
While the hearing was happening, the state Department of Community Affairs announced from Trenton it was changing part of RREM, the contested housing program, so homeowners whose applications had already been approved could get money faster.
The change would allow grant awardees to get up to half of their funding in advance if they are using their own contractor. Once invoices or receipts for that money are presented, homeowners can submit up to two more applications for the remainder of the funding.
Previously, homeowners had to pay for repairs and then seek reimbursement.
“We are taking a big step forward and getting rid of a requirement that has stood in the way of progress, and we are grateful to the Obama administration for approving this change,” Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable said in a news release.
Menendez said the change was “welcome but nowhere near the resolution of the core issue I was raising.” He focused on thousands of residents he said had applied for grants and were improperly rejected or are on a waiting list with no idea if they will ever be approved.
He urged the state to publish a waiting list so people know if they have any chance of receiving funding from the RREM program, which was initially funded with $925 million of the $1.83 billion block grant from HUD in February 2013.
Constable and Christie have blamed the environmental and historical reviews for delays in awarding funds, but Donovan told Menendez the reviews take an average of two weeks for most homes and six weeks for more complex cases.
“It’s not the environmental or historical preservation requirements slowing things down, because if was just those, people’s wait time would be two to six weeks, not seven to 10 months and counting,” Menendez said in response.
Menendez said the state chose to make applicants clear all other grant requirements first, including complex scope-of-work estimates, before beginning the reviews. The result is critical as applicants have been told not to pay for any work on their homes while their application is being reviewed because the work will not be reimbursed if it the property later is found to have environmental or historical problems.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons