1,200 N.J. homeowners still await Sandy aid approvals

Two and a half years after Hurricane Sandy struck the Shore, about 1,200 New Jersey homeowners are still awaiting state approval of their applications for aid to help rebuild their homes, a top official in Gov. Christie's administration told lawmakers Wednesday.

About 6,800 residents have qualified for grants through the state's Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation, and Mitigation (RREM) program. Of those, 6,300 have received some money and about 1,000 have reported that they have completed construction and are back in their homes, said Charles A. Richman, acting commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs.

Lawmakers expressed frustration that more people had not been able to return to their homes by now.

"If that doesn't shock the conscience to you, it does to me," Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington) told Richman during a hearing of the Assembly Budget Committee.

Richman, who became acting commissioner after Richard Constable left the post for a job in the private sector in March, said the number of homeowners completing the rebuilding process had increased to about 40 per month recently. He said he expected that number to double soon.

"We're on a trajectory that's significant," Richman said during the two-hour hearing.

The state has disbursed about $450 million to homeowners through the RREM program, he said. An additional $400 million has been awarded but not distributed. Last week, the state won approval from the federal government to begin awarding an additional $270 million in recovery aid, Richman said.

The RREM program provides grants of up to $150,000 to eligible homeowners to repair or elevate their homes. To be eligible for assistance, applicants' homes needed to be their primary residence and owner-occupied at the time of the storm, among other requirements.

Other federal dollars have also flowed to businesses, municipalities, and housing developers through other programs.

Echoing Christie, Richman attributed the delay in aid to homeowners to the federal government's decision to dole out funding. That was a change from the government's response to other major storms, such as Hurricane Katrina, Richman said.

Nevertheless, he said, the state has learned from its early mistakes in the recovery process.

"Am I satisfied a lot of people are not back in their homes? Of course not," he said. "But we have made significant changes since last year, when we had a system that wasn't supporting the homeowners."

He noted that the state had fired the contractor, Louisiana-based Hammerman & Gainer Inc. (HGI), that initially oversaw administration of the RREM program.

HGI filed for arbitration last year; that process is on hold "as settlement discussions continue," according to the Department of Community Affairs' written response to questions from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.

The state has paid the firm about $36 million. In its February 2014 arbitration filing, HGI said it was seeking $18 million more in outstanding invoices.

Most homeowners choose their own contractors, Richman said. The state provides 50 percent of the grant up front, and the "outflow of dollars" thereafter depends on how quickly the homeowner submits documentation to the state showing new costs, he said.

Singleton said he found it "hard to believe" that displaced residents were "dragging their feet."

Richman said the state had taken other steps to help ease the burden on those seeking to return to their homes. Some homeowners receiving aid through RREM have had difficulty paying both their mortgage and rent on a temporary home.

So the state began a program in the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency to help these residents pay rent, Richman said. More than 500 people have applied for the aid, he said.

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