State change to Sandy grant program may allow some to see money up front

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Work continues on a house in Avalon. A change in a federally funded grant program could mean more homeowners will be able to start Sandy recovery projects earlier. Work continues on a house in Avalon. A change in a federally funded grant program could mean more homeowners will be able to start Sandy recovery projects earlier. TRENTON – Homeowners may be able to see some grant money up front, under a big change to the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program announced this week by the Christie Administration.

Grant applicants had been told they would have to fund the work up front and then were eligible for reimbursements.

The move allows Sandy-impacted homeowners in the RREM Program who are using their own contractor to get grant funding quicker for initial construction costs. It eliminates the requirement that previously forced homeowners to provide proof of construction costs before submitting payment requests.

“This is welcome news for New Jerseyans rebuilding from Sandy, and will help people get back in their homes faster,” said New Jersey Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard E. Constable III. “As I’ve traveled across our state, I’ve heard concerns from residents frustrated about some of the more burdensome regulations on these Sandy recovery programs. We are taking a big step forward and getting rid of a requirement that has stood in the way of progress, and we are grateful to the Obama Administration for approving this change.”

The $700 million RREM fund is aimed at helping with reconstruction costs for storm damaged properties. But many applicants have complained about the glacial pace of the process.

This week, Sen. Robert Menendez blasted the state’s handling of the program. While heading up a meeting of the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development, Menendez said the federal requirements were not what was slowing down the process, and said the state could speed things up.

“HUD specified that rebuilding can commence once the environmental and historical reviews are completed, which is currently taking two to six weeks—not months,” the senator said.  “What I heard from the secretary is that the state is free to front-load those assessments and then simultaneously verify the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program application while residents work to get their lives back.” 

He called for closer federal oversight before any further federal money went toward Sandy recovery. He also said Spanish speaking residents were having trouble accessing recovery programs.

According to Menendez’s office, at the Wednesday hearing, the senator received a commitment from U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan to review and work with the New Jersey to improve the state’s federally funded Hurricane Sandy recovery programs.  The state is preparing to submit to HUD for review its plan to administer the second portion of federal aid for Sandy victims.

 In February, Gov. Chris Christie fired the private contractor that was running the RREM program under a $20 million contract. State officials have indicated the termination was not based on performance, but at several meetings, including one at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, numerous homeowners complained of interminable delays in the review process even after they were approved for the program.

According to state officials, the most recent change will help speed things up.

The new policy, which was recently approved by the federal HUD Department, went into effect Monday, March 10 and applicants will receive a letter informing them of the change. With this change, RREM grant awardees who are using their own contractor can request an advance payment for 50 percent of their RREM grant, according to state officials. Once a RREM grant awardee’s contractor invoices or provides receipts for eligible costs that exceed the initial 50 percent advance, the grant awardee may submit up to two additional payment requests for the remaining balance of their RREM grant.

RREM grant awardees must certify that they have a general contractor or design professional under contract and DCA must verify that the contractor is licensed in New Jersey and not debarred from work. At the time of the final payment request, DCA will conduct a property inspection to ensure that RREM funds were used properly and that items paid by the RREM grant award are complete.

The RREM Program, which is the state’s largest housing recovery program, provides grants to Sandy-impacted homeowners to cover rebuilding costs up to $150,000 that are not funded by insurance, FEMA, U.S. Small Business Administration loans, or other sources. For an overview of the RREM Program, see www.renewjerseystronger.org/rrem/.


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