Several local politicians called for a review of thousands of Hurricane Sandy aid applications after a report Wednesday found they had been erroneously rejected by the state.
Nearly 80 percent of applicants who appealed their rejections for aid through state-run programs had their decisions overturned upon appeal, according to the Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center. The programs were overseen by Hammerman and Gainer, or HGI, until they were fired by the state in December.
On Wednesday, a state Department of Community Affairs spokesperson told The Press of Atlantic City that the rejections were made in part due to “inaccurate damage assessment data” provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, a FEMA spokesperson said the data they provided was never intended to be “comprehensive.”
Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown and Democrat Sen. Jim Whelan, both representing Atlantic County, said the applications should be reviewed to determine if those who were rejected were actually eligible. Both said they had been helping constituents who believed they were wrongly rejected or had trouble with the state’s aid process since the October 2012 storm.
“All that needs to be revisited because people were given misinformation,” Whelan said. “You have to open it up and let those folks make the application.”
Brown said he shared the frustration of those who had been “wrongly denied” assistance.
“I would be happy to work with my colleagues in finding a resolution to ensure the process is done fairly,” he said.
According to data obtained through the Open Public Records Act and analyzed by Fair Share, 79 percent of applicants who appealed rejections for both the Resettlement and the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation, or RREM, programs were eventually approved for funding.
For instance, in the Resettlement program, which provides $10,000 to help homeowners with nonrebuilding costs, 3,221 applicants were initially rejected from the program. Of those, 1,391 appealed; 1,379 appeals have since been decided; and 1,090 residents had those rejections overturned.
“When the state is wrong 80 percent of the time, the people who didn’t file appeals should be given another chance,” said Kevin Walsh, associate director of Fair Share.
Victims advocates said they weren’t surprised by the revelations, as the data came after more than a year of confusion and frustration for Sandy-addled residents. Last year, as they started receiving rejection notices, many were told to automatically appeal.
“Everything was in flux, as if these programs were making it up as they went along,” said the Rev. John Scotland, chair of Brigantine’s long-term recovery group BrigStrong. “It was a very common experience.”
Scotland said it seemed that the state and its contractors never seemed to get over the initial learning curve.
The newest data comes after the Christie administration fired HGI, the contractor who was put charge of overseeing the state’s Sandy recovery programs. That $68 million contract was terminated two years before it was set to expired. So far, state officials haven’t given a reason for the firing.
“The public, especially those still out of their homes, deserve an answer,” said Adam Gordon, staff attorney for Fair Share. “And people who were denied unfairly should not be barred from getting help with their homes because of the Christie administration’s and HGI’s mistakes.”
Walsh said the sheer volume of overturned rejections is indicative of a broken process that lacked transparency.
“A process that’s efficient and has integrity is one that doesn’t have a high error rate,” he said.
But Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, which oversaw Sandy aid for the state, said the Fair Share Housing Center’s analysis “leaves out both significant facts and context.”
“(The) DCA has ensured that anyone initially rejected received a thorough review of their application, resulting in reinstatement of eligibility and the award of recovery funds in every single eligible case,” she said.
Ryan said the state noted and investigated the high number of ineligibility determinations. It was through that investigation, she said, that the state learned of the faulty data.
“As a result, we obtained HUD approval to allow applicants to demonstrate damage through third party sources other than FEMA data, such as private insurance estimates and SBA (U.S. Small Business Administration) damage assessments,” she said.
FEMA spokeswoman Phyllis Deroian said the agency provided the data at the state’s request, but that data had been specific to eligibility for FEMA’s programs and not the state-run ones such as RREM.
“It is not intended to be a comprehensive damage assessment for long-term recovery work,” she said.
It was unclear as of Wednesday evening whether the DCA had notified homeowners whose applications were rejected of the inaccurate data, although Ryan said everyone had been told of their ability to appeal.
The data on rejections also follow allegations that the Christie administration withheld Sandy aid from Hoboken, Hudson County, for political reasons and that it channeled $6 million in federal funds to build a senior housing complex in a community that was not significantly damaged by the storm. The state has also reportedly delayed the installation of monitors for major Sandy recovery projects. Representatives for the administration have largely denied or refused to comment on the allegations.
Representatives of the Governor’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Walsh said the data ultimately cast doubt on the rejections of the 3,700 people who didn’t appeal. Many advocates and clergy told the center that residents they worked with didn’t know they should appeal, he said.
“A lot of the folks who were rejected weren’t lawyers,” he said. “They weren’t aware of how the process should work and, when they get a denial, they think they’ve been rejected for legitimate reasons.”
In some cases, appeal information wasn’t made available to residents. For instance, the Spanish-language version of the state’s recovery website did not contain information on how to appeal decisions until October 2013.
Whelan said he had seen first-hand how inefficient the system was.
“We received our rejection for funds to raise our house this weekend,” he said. “I’m not complaining — other people have a greater need than we do — but it takes that long, 16 months, to figure this out?” He said.
Like many of his constituents, Whelan said, his wife spent many hours on the phone hashing out what they were eligible for and where the application was in the system. Most of the people who’ve been successful are the ones who have the time and the wherewithal to spend many hours sitting on the phone. Unfortunately, he said, not everyone is able to do that.
“I’m embarrassed to say, as a senator and as someone who was out of my home all last winter as a result of Sandy, that I don’t know what the ground rules are,” Whelan said.
Brown said something would have to be done, although it wasn’t clear what exactly it would be Wednesday evening.
“People just want to be treated fairly and be able to move on with their lives,” he said.
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
@wjmckelvey on Twitter