Written by Claire Lowe Wednesday, January 29, 2014 01:31 pm
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NEWARK – A week after New Jersey terminated a multimillion-dollar contract with the firm hired last year to oversee a grant program aimed at helping homeowners after Hurricane Sandy, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey is insisting HUD and state officials attend to growing complaints from New Jersey families, who were devastated by Sandy and are still waiting for federal aid.
Menendez sent a letter Wednesday, Jan. 29 to Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan asking HUD to take action and expressing his intention to hold Senate hearings to address these issues.
“These individuals need and deserve the best possible assistance and funding to help them rebuild stronger and smarter than before, as soon as possible,” wrote Menendez, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development. “For many, however, the recovery is still far from complete – homes are still damaged, families are still displaced, businesses have yet to reopen, and infrastructure is still waiting to be repaired.”
Menendez expressed concern over reports that the state’s first round of Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funding distribution has been wrought with delays, poor communication and a lack of transparency.
Public interest groups like the Fair Share Housing Center, devoted to defending the housing rights of New Jersey's poor, have been critical of the state’s distribution of Hurricane Sandy-related funds. In September, the FSHC sued the state in superior court for access to manuals, guidelines and documents related to the implementation of Sandy recovery programs.
The state has also admitted that distribution of funding for some of the state’s recovery programs has been delayed. A press release from the governor’s office on Jan. 15 stated that the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation, or RREM program, is encumbered by numerous federal requirements in place largely in response to abuse and fraud post-Katrina.
“More than a year after the storm, these problems are simply not acceptable,” Menendez wrote. “The people of New Jersey, who have worked and are continuing to work so hard to rebuild their homes and livelihoods, cannot afford more delays and runaround.”
While many homeowners continue to wait for the funding they need to rebuild, Menendez said that renters impacted by Sandy – a higher share of whom are African-American, Latino or low-income – are reportedly fairing worse. There have been reports of long waiting lists, lengthy delays and people denied assistance or left endlessly in limbo without knowing why, he said. Reports also suggest low- and moderate-income families are getting less than what they have been allocated to receive.
Menendez wrote, “I hold HUD responsible for taking the leadership role to ensure proper implementation of best practices, including recommendations of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force’s Rebuilding Strategy report. HUD must ensure that the state is more transparent, more equitable, and speedier in the distribution of crucial funds.”
The senator has also urged HUD and state officials to work with his staff in engaging local residents, community leaders and relevant stakeholders dissatisfied with the current process.
Full text of the letter to Secretary Donovan follows:
January 29, 2014
The Honorable Shaun Donovan
United States Department of Housing and Urban Development
451 Seventh Street, S.W.
Washington, DC 20410
Dear Secretary Donovan,
When Superstorm Sandy struck more than a year ago, it inflicted massive devastation in my state of New Jersey and throughout the affected region. Since then, individuals, families, businesses, and communities have worked hard to rebuild. For many, however, the recovery is still far from complete – homes are still damaged, families are still displaced, businesses have yet to reopen, and infrastructure is still waiting to be repaired.
These individuals need and deserve the best possible assistance and funding to help them rebuild stronger and smarter than before, as soon as possible. Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding, which the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) oversees, plays a critical role in meeting these needs.
I am concerned, however, by reports in my state that have described the first round of CDBG-DR funding as a process in need of improvement and a source of great frustration for many New Jerseyans. While homeowners are having trouble getting the funding they need, renters, who make up about 40 percent of the people impacted by Sandy and a higher share of whom are African American, Latino, or low-income, are reportedly faring even worse. Reports also suggest that low- and moderate-income families have been receiving a lower share of resettlement and other grants than they had been allocated to receive.
Lack of transparency has also been a concern for many people. I have heard several reports of applicants being turned down for grants without any explanation or left endlessly in limbo without knowing why. Long waiting lists and lengthy delays have also left many still waiting to return to their homes, or even to find out whether they can return home or will have to move.
More than a year after the storm, these problems are simply not acceptable. The people of New Jersey, who have worked and are continuing to work so hard to rebuild their homes and livelihoods, cannot afford more delays and runaround. As the state prepares its action plan for the recently announced second round of CDBG-DR funding, we need proactive leadership from HUD to address these problems. In particular, I expect HUD to work with state officials, providing clear guidance and taking a directive approach as necessary, to ensure relief is flowing in a timely fashion; to improve the transparency, fairness, and efficiency of the review and award process; and to identify and provide for the needs of all communities.
In this process, HUD and state officials must take seriously reported areas in need of improvement and engage with relevant stakeholders to incorporate their feedback as appropriate, including meeting with communities and residents who have not been satisfied with the current process or its outcomes. I would like my staff to be included, and would like reports provided to the Senate Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development as to how HUD intends to address each item of feedback and make the corresponding improvements.
Overall, I hold HUD responsible for taking the leadership role to ensure proper implementation of best practices, including recommendations of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force’s Rebuilding Strategy report. HUD must ensure that the state is more transparent, more equitable, and speedier in the distribution of crucial funds. It is my intention to hold hearings as to these issues, and I look forward to your cooperation.
Please do not hesitate to contact me or my staff with any questions.