Newark Star-Ledger, Dec. 22, 2013
They would like a place to call home.
More than a year after Hurricane Sandy hit, the struggling family that lost its apartment to the storm has been unable to find an affordable house to rent, taking refuge in a succession of motels or on the couches of friends and relatives, while depending on the kindness of strangers.
“It’s hard,” said Lisa Lamberson, 38, a mother of six, who has been living out of two cramped motel rooms on Route 36 since September and sees no prospects for leaving anytime soon.
For some New Jerseyans, the Sandy comeback is more myth than reality.
And people who rent may not be seeing any comeback at all.
An analysis by The Star-Ledger of one of the key programs aimed at helping renters find affordable housing concludes that much of the $4.5 million awarded to date did not go to the counties hardest hit by Sandy. Instead, more than $2 million of it went to landlords in Essex County, which was far less affected than towns along the Jersey Shore.
Monmouth County, where the Lambersons live, saw less than a quarter of that. The state program has so far allocated only $47,484 to Ocean County, where whole towns were swept away.
“There is no rational matchup between where there is a housing need because of the storm and where the resources are going,” complained Staci Berger, executive director of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.
In the race to recover from Sandy, housing advocates complain, the state has directed the bulk of its resources toward homeowners and high-profile boardwalk restoration projects, while largely ignoring renters and low-income residents like the Lamberson family.
This problem, they assert, represents just the latest in a series of spiraling miscues, delays and mistakes in the distribution of federal aid to storm victims.
The state, they say, has been doing too little, too late, shortchanging some of the most vulnerable.
“There is widespread confusion and a sense of being left behind,” said Kevin Walsh, associate director of the Fair Share Housing Center, a Cherry Hill-based organization that litigates for affordable housing in New Jersey that has sharply criticized the administration .
Officials in the state Department of Community Affairs called the advocates’ claims “utterly without merit.”
A department spokeswoman noted that less than seven months after housing recovery funds finally started flowing in New Jersey, 43 percent — or nearly half — of the money was either earmarked for spending, or had already been awarded to people in need. Nearly three-quarters of those funds have been distributed to low- or middle-income people.
“Not only are we allocating considerable funds to rental housing, we are doing so at a greater ratio than the damage assessment indicates,” said the spokeswoman, Lisa Ryan.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in April approved a state plan to spend about $1.83 billion in the first round of federal Community Development Block Grants for Sandy relief efforts. And most of that money, nearly $1.16 billion, was allocated by the Christie administration to housing assistance programs.
So far, $790.3 million has been spent, and nearly all of that has gone to the nine New Jersey counties hardest by Sandy — Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Union.
An examination of that spending shows more than 80 cents of every dollar did go to the counties directly in the eye of the storm. Ocean County received $374.5 million. Monmouth received $164.1 million. Atlantic got $118.9 million.
But much of that money was aimed at homeowners.
Adam Gordon, a staff attorney at Fair Share Housing Center, said the Christie administration has consistently made renters — especially low-income renters impacted by Sandy — a lower priority than homeowners.
Ryan denied that is the case. She said a needs assessment was conducted by the department focusing on primary residences that sustained major or severe storm-related damage. It found that 72 percent were owner-occupied homes and 28 percent were rental properties.
“We used this needs assessment as the basis for allocating the $1.2 billion earmarked for housing recovery programs,” the community affairs spokeswoman said. “In fact, we overallocated funds to renters.”
But the Fair Share Housing Center — which sued the state in September for documents related to the relief effort — says those records show the administration never had clear guidelines for awarding Hurricane Sandy relief funds until after it began paying out the money.
The group also claimed thousands of people affected by Sandy were put on wait lists or rejected from specific aid programs before the formal guidelines were put in place. At the same time, it accused the Christie administration of significantly underfunding rental housing programs from the start.
Gordon said the state initially proposed a plan to allocate less than 25 percent of housing recovery funds to renters.
“HUD fortunately stepped in and required the Christie administration to increase resources serving renters by $75 million, including $15 million for public housing repair — still not enough to fairly reflect the damage, but an improvement,” he said. “HUD also required the Christie administration to target their funds to the most impacted communities — something that they had not proposed in their original plan.”
Where’s the need?
Housing advocates say even after the state added funding to help renters, it dragged its feet and used the money poorly. They specifically point to the Incentives for Landlords program as one of the big failures of the recovery effort.
The $40 million program was aimed at temporarily subsidizing rental rates to provide more affordable housing. It provides rental property owners roughly the difference between 30 percent of a tenant’s monthly income and the fair market rent for a rental unit, during a two-year period.
Under the program, the example state officials give is that a landlord in Monmouth County receiving a fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment of $1,410 would collect $517 from the tenant, with about $893 paid by the state.
The data examined by The Star-Ledger, though, showed much of the money awarded so far has gone to Essex County — far from the areas most ravaged by the storm.
“There is a rental crisis in Essex, but it does not appear that the money from the program is going to where Sandy did the most damage,” remarked Berger of the Housing and Community Development Network, who called the program restrictive and poorly designed.
“It wasn’t the best investment they could have made to help renters,” Berger said.
Ryan conceded the greatest demand for the incentive program grants has come from Essex, but said the department’s hands were tied by federal guidelines. The grants are awarded based on demand, and not specifically on geographical need.
“While we have done substantial outreach of this program in coastal areas, we can’t force rental property owners to apply,” she said.
“We believe this program is a win-win for all involved — the rental property owner, the family in need of affordable housing and the community — and we’ve conveyed this everywhere we’ve done outreach, but it is ultimately up to the property owner to decide if they want to participate.”
Overall, Ryan said that $379 million has been allocated in disaster recovery funds for programs specifically for rental housing, which will result in more than 7,000 new affordable housing units statewide over the next two years.
Waiting to go home
Meanwhile, the Sandy rebuilding effort continues in places like Keansburg, where the Lamberson family children still go to school and their parents are desperate to find a new home.
“We’re slowly plodding along. We are getting homes back in shape,” said Ed Striedl, the borough’s construction official and flood plain manager. He estimated that half of Keansburg’s housing stock was left temporarily uninhabitable by the hurricane and its floodwaters.
About 15 percent to 20 percent of the homes in Keansburg remain vacant, “but it’s better than it was a year ago,” he said.
Lisa Lamberson, who lost her job after the storm and was having financial troubles even before, is grateful for the assistance she has received from Catholic Charities in Monmouth County and other organizations. Now, though, she just wants to leave the motel where she has been staying for the past four months and return with her family to a place she can afford in Keansburg.
“The people here are amazing. They’re really nice people. But I want to be in my own home,” she said. “My house is usually decorated this time of year for Christmas and I’m not going to be able to bake cookies with the kids.”