A hearing that was supposed to focus on the state’s plan to spend $1.4 billion in Sandy recovery funds quickly turned into a public venting session for some of the nearly 200 attendees. Frustration, anger, and disappointment dominated the comments of homeowners, renters, and advocacy groups gathered at Richard Stockton College Tuesday.
Their list of complaints were long and varied, but many attendees focused their anger on the Department of Community Affairs and the RREM Grant it administers, the state’s largest program to help Sandy-damaged homeowners with up to $150,000 of repairs costs.
“Right now, [RREM] is a black eye on our state,” said Jane Peltonen from Brigantine. “It’s redundant and it’s a debacle.”
Addressing DCA Commissioner Richard Constable, Dr. Steven Fenichel began his remarks by saying he could “finally put a face on this terrible nemesis that’s been plaguing me for about a year now.”
The DCA said it’s already begun addressing many of the attendees’ complaints. In January, the agency dismissed a subcontractor responsible for collecting and evaluating grant applications, which many homeowners blamed for poor service.
“The process is going to be a lot better for the thousand folks who’ve just been released off the wait list than for the first thousand folks who were initially part of the program back in July and August,” said Commissioner Constable, after meeting with five members of the audience to try to resolve particular personal issues.
While Sandy struck the East Coast in October 2012, Constable noted that the state has only had access to federal funds for ten months because of the time it took to get funding allocated and the state’s initial action plan approved.
“No one wants to hear that,” he acknowledged. “Folks want to get back into their homes. We understand it.”
Responding to comments about onerous paperwork and lengthy reviews, Marc Ferzan, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, promised to release a detailed list of federal requirements that he says are responsible for many delays.
“We feel equally as frustrated as all of you do,” he assured the audience.
While most individuals shared personal stories of confusion and delay, representatives from advocacy groups including the New Jersey Sierra Club and Clean Ocean Action voiced concerns about the state’s lack of initiatives and planning to address sea level rise. The Fair Share Housing Center drew applause when suggesting better communication and transparency about grant eligibility criteria.
The hearing was required as part of the federal approval process for the state’s plan to spend a second batch of recovery funds. Two additional hearings are scheduled.
Feb. 12; New Jersey Institute of Technology; 150 Bleeker St., Newark; Campus Center; 5:30–8:30 p.m.
Feb. 21; Brookdale Community College; Robert J. Collins Arena; 765 Newman Springs Road, Lincroft; 4–7:30 p.m. (Rescheduled from Feb 13 due to weather)