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Hurricane Sandy and New Jersey’s Poor

NY Times, Mar. 19, 2014

By the Editorial Board

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is required by law to ensure that states spend federal disaster aid in a fair, nondiscriminatory manner that furthers the goals of the federal fair housing law. But history shows that states sometimes need a push, and the evidence suggests that Gov. Chris Christie’s administration in New Jersey needs one right now.

Testimony at a recent Senate hearing convened by Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat of New Jersey, showed beyond a doubt that the recovery effort following Hurricane Sandy was mismanaged from the start and, worse, has consistently shortchanged poor and minority victims.

Janice Fine, a professor in the school of management and labor relations at Rutgers University, told the committee that the Christie administration hired a contractor with a mixed record to manage the recovery program and then failed to provide basic oversight.

The contractor regularly lost applications for aid, misled hurricane victims and wrongly turned away thousands who, as it turned out, were fully qualified for aid. The contractor was fired in December, but Ms. Fine believes the state still lacks the capacity to monitor and manage such contracts efficiently.

Even more disturbing testimony came from Adam Gordon, a lawyer for the Fair Share Housing Center, a housing rights group that has been battling Governor Christie over irregularities in the recovery program from the very beginning. Drawing on an analysis of state data the center published in January, Mr. Gordon said that the programs offering grants to people to rebuild their homes or replace belongings had a disparate impact on minorities: applications from African-Americans were rejected at 2.5 times the rate of whites, while Latinos were rejected at 1.5 times the rate of white, non-Latino applicants.

Worse still, according to the center’s analysis, nearly 80 percent of the people who appealed after they were denied funds turned out to be eligible after all, another sign that the screening process was deeply flawed. It seems wholly plausible that many among the thousands of applicants who did not bother to appeal adverse rulings were wrongly turned away as well.

In addition, the housing center found that too little money had gone to programs meant to build or repair rental properties.

This raises yet another troubling matter of fairness, given that more than two-thirds of African-Americans and Latinos victimized by the storm were renters. Moreover, Mr. Gordon said in his written testimony that federal authorities at the Department of Housing and Urban Development had known about these problems for months, but had taken “too little action to ensure that these federal funds are spent fairly.”

New Jersey has already received $1.8 billion in Sandy aid and is expected to receive another $1.5 billion soon. With that in mind, Senator Menendez asked Shaun Donovan, the housing secretary, how he planned to address the situation, rectify past mistakes and prevent new ones from occurring. Mr. Donovan said the Christie administration had assured him that it would adopt new procedures and take steps to reach families that may have been wrongly denied aid.

Given the state’s recent history, Mr. Donovan should take nothing for granted.

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