Months after Bill Halbeisen applied for a grant to help rebuild his Hurricane Sandy-damaged home, the state told him that he didn’t qualify.
The reason, he says: his home didn’t sustain more than a foot of flooding or at least $8,000 in damages.
But in reality, Halbeisen said, his Manahawkin home was inundated with more than four feet of water and he needed up to $160,000 to rebuild and elevate the property.
He appealed the rejection and won.
Apparently, there are a lot of Bill Halbeisens out there.
The Fair Share Housing Center today released an analysis that found 79 percent of residents who appealed denials of funds for housing recovery were successful. The advocacy group said the review shows the state and the firm it hired to handle the programs bungled the effort from the start.
“There was a systemic failure to perform the most basic function of recovery which is to sort out who’s eligible for funds and who’s not,” said Adam Gordon, staff attorney for Fair Share Housing Center.
Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, said the center’s analysis “leaves out both significant facts and context.” She also blamed part of the problem on the Federal Emergency Management Agency providing the state with inaccurate data.
The Fair Share Housing Center’s study is the latest in a series of reports critical of how the state has administered disaster aid. Several of those reports were released by Fair Share Housing Center, a Cherry Hill-based group that advocates for affordable housing.
Fair Share Housing Center analyzed two state programs created last year from a pot of money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Those programs were the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation grant and the Homeowner Resettlement grant.
The RREM grant program provides up to $150,000 for rebuilding costs and the Resettlement gives $10,000 to homeowners who agree to stay in the county they lived before Sandy hit for at least three years.
Last spring, the state signed a three-year contract with Hammerman & Gainer to oversee those programs. After complaints from residents about inept management, the state severed ties with the firm without publicly announcing the move or explaining why the contract was ended.
Ryan said the state is now taking a larger role in the recovery effort
The analysis by Fair Share Housing Center found that more than 1,000 of the nearly 3,200 applicants rejected by the RREM program appealed. Of the 1,003 appeals that have been decided, 788 applicants, or 79 percent, were told they were eligible.
Halbeisen, a 67-year-old retired school psychologist, said he felt having to appeal put him at a disadvantage as he now sits on a waiting list with thousands of others. If he didn’t have to fight the initial rejection, he said, “I think I would have been higher up on the list.”
The center’s analysis also found that of the more than 3,200 homeowners who were rejected for a resettlement grant, nearly 1,400 appealed. So far, 1,379 of those appeals have been decided, with 1,090 people, or 79 percent, found to be eligible.
The center noted that thousands of homeowners did not appeal, making it impossible to determine how many of those individuals were wrongly rejected as well.
Ryan said her agency ensured anyone initially rejected received “a thorough review of their application, resulting in reinstatement of eligibility and the award of recovery funds in every single eligible case.”
She said because of the inaccurate FEMA data, the state got federal approval to allow homeowners to show damage through third-party sources.
In a statement late tonight, though, FEMA officials said that RREM is a state-run program, with eligibility determined by New Jersey authorities.
“At the state’s request, FEMA provided its individual assistance data, which is specific to eligibility for FEMA’s programs focused on survivor needs in the immediate aftermath of a disaster,” the statement said. “It is not intended to be a comprehensive damage assessment for long-term recovery work.”
The state is preparing to spend more than $1.46 billion in additional federal aid as criticism mounts over how it has distributed money so far. A plan released by the state on Monday calls for funneling another $390 million into the RREM program.
As the state moves forward with that plan, Gordon said “there needs to be some kind of provision to recognize there was a massive failure here in allocating this aid.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, (D-9th Dist.), called on the state to reopen applications for the RREM program, saying the “revelations shed some light on just how grossly mishandled the largest Sandy housing program really was.”