With thousands saying they are not getting the aid they need to rebuild from Hurricane Sandy — or even answers from bureaucrats — Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) is pushing to establish a bill of rights for victims of the storm.
The bill was spurred by months of public hearings around the state where homeowners and others complained about being turned down for grant money without adequate explanation, a lack of clarity on how to apply for aid, and waiting lists of up to 8,000 people trying to get answers about unclear appeals processes.
Sweeney vowed to introduce the bill in the next session at a press conference yesterday, a few hours before Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address in which the embattled executive briefly touted what he claimed were his administration’s successes in recovering from the storm.
“The bottom line is this: We are a long way from the finish line, but we are a long way from where we were a year ago,” Christie said. Addressing a frequent criticism of the Sandy recovery effort — that too little aid is going to low- and moderate-income people — the governor claimed in his speech that 73 percent of housing money has gone to those families. Critics say less than 40 percent is probably a more accurate accounting.
Sweeney called the bill a much-needed piece of legislation that will protect and aid working people.
The bill aims to address problems with Sandy funding expressed to date. For instance, people who appeal decisions are told they will receive a response within 50 days and then are not given a response. If no decision comes within 50 days, the appeal is deemed successful, according to an early draft of what would be included in the bill.
Others say there is a disparity in funding for African-American and Latino applicants, who are rejected at much high rates than white applicants. Under the early draft, the state would be required to audit within 30 days all rejected applications and the reasons for not approving them.
In addition, the bill would require the state to keep its promise to distribute funding in accordance with damage from the storm. Democrats say Bergen and Hudson counties are getting far less in homeowner programs than is needed.
The bill won endorsements from several groups that have been most critical of the Sandy recovery effort.
“For too long, people impacted by superstorm Sandy have not been treated with the dignity and respect they deserve by the Christie administration,” said Adam Gordon, staff attorney for the Fair Share Housing Center. Upset with the administration’s refusal to answer questions about the distribution of aid, the center went to court to obtain access to its records.
“People are still stuck with tens or hundreds of thousands of damage,” Gordon added. “Many people, especially renters, are still not back home.”
Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing & Community Development Network of New Jersey, agreed.
“The commonsense solutions presented in President Sweeney’s bill not only streamlines the grant application process but also establishes clear guidelines for the state to respond,” Berger said. “Sandy survivors will have less red tape and more rights as a result of this proposal.”
Others were not as optimistic. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, asked, “How come they didn’t try it last year. More importantly, it’s not only important to get people back in their homes but to do it the right way by incorporating changes occurring because of climate change and rising sea levels.”
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.