New Jersey’s proposal for how it will spend $1.83 billion in federal disaster aid has been submitted to the federal government, with state officials urging the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fast-track approval so residents can begin applying for grants.
This tight time line — with Gov. Chris Christie’s office anticipating that residents may be able to begin applying for grants to raise or rebuild storm-damaged homes by mid-April — is almost unprecedented in a state that has never before had such a large amount of federal housing grant money to work with.
But some policy experts in New Jersey worry the plan not only lacks important details the federal government has requested, but also misses the mark for meeting the needs of the state’s most affected residents. Some also fear the state could be forced to revise the plan, potentially creating delays in making the money available to residents and business owners.
“In the past, HUD has rejected master plans and (Community Development Block Grant) plans, so it’s certainly not unprecedented,” said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, a land-use policy advocacy group that has criticized the plan for lacking details on community planning and storm resiliency.
It’s unlikely that HUD would outright reject the plan or force major revisions, said Olga Alvarez, an agency spokeswoman. That’s because by the time an application of this magnitude has been submitted, officials have been working with HUD, she said.
“There’s an expectation that they’ve done their homework,” Alvarez said. “Everyone wants this to happen. The state wants it to happen. HUD wants it to happen. Everyone wants the money to get out there.”
If HUD has issues with the proposed plan, Alvarez said, it’s more likely it would be approved while the state works on making corrections or revisions. “If there is something, it won’t hold the whole thing up,” she said.
Many topics listed in the plan, other than the grants and loan programs, lack detail for how money will be spent on specific issues, such as for community planning and oversight costs.
The state, in the plan, has noted that it will amend the document in about three months to provide details for how it will monitor how the federal money is used.
“The report itself is filled with fuzzy language, has no standards for rebuilding or even measures of performance,” said Jeff Tittel, director of N.J. Sierra Club. “We are also concerned that there is no transparency or accountability with the whole program.”
Several homeowner grants to help with rebuilding or raising houses are part of the proposal, along with grants for developers and landlords to build or repair rental units for low- to moderate-income residents. One of these grants — as much as $150,000 to raise or rebuild storm-damaged houses to new flood standards — will go to about 6,000 residents who meet strict qualification requirements. These include a household income of no more than $250,000 and having been registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Christie announced Friday the deadline to apply for FEMA aid had been extended one more month, to May 1.
Most of these grants, however, will be doled out on a first-come, first-served basis, something that housing and community advocates say is unfair to working families or low-income resident who don’t have the means to race for an application.
“It’s going to be the people who don’t have to go to work who will be at the front of the line, because they can make the calls or take off work and go wait,” said Kevin Walsh, associate director of the with the Fair Share Housing Center.
Walsh’s organization, which advocates for low- to moderate-income housing, strongly condemned the plan for having a relatively small amount of money going toward helping renters. The Christie administration estimates in the plan submitted that the incentives for developers to build new rental units and for small landlords to restore damaged apartments and houses will help as many as 5,000 renters.
A study by the Maryland-based Enterprise Community Partners found that low- to moderate-income renters were disproportionately affected by storm damage. Almost 6,000 renters in Atlantic City applied for FEMA aid, with more than half reporting an income of less than $15,000 a year, the report found.
Christie and Sens. Bob Menendez and Frank Lautenberg have requested HUD to fast-track the state plan.
This speed, along with the amount of money involved and the fact that the state has to hire people to manage the program, has policy advocates concerned that costly mistakes will be made.
“We’re going to spend a huge amount of money, and there’s going to be a lot of pressure to spend that money very quickly, and that means rebuilding things exactly where they were,” Kasabach said. “At the same time, regions that have gone through previous disasters know it’s going to take a very long time to complete the recovery process.”
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