Residents who believe New Jersey erroneously rejected their Sandy aid applications will be returned to their original place in line if their appeals are successful, state officials say.
But they may have a long wait.
At least 8,000 applicants already deemed eligible are still awaiting disbursement. Meanwhile, the state’s newest recovery action plan would leave many of the eligible unfunded even before accounting for the new appeals that may be added to the waiting list.
In the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation, or RREM, program, 7,117 applicants have been wait-listed, according to data analyzed by the nonprofit housing advocacy group Fair Share Housing Center. Meanwhile, 1,308 applicants for resettlement grants have been approved but haven’t yet been issued checks. A state proposal for spending $1.46 billion in additional federal aid is expected to remove about 3,000 homeowners from wait lists.
So far, $710 million has been allocated to 5,124 residents through the state’s RREM program, according to its newest Sandy recovery action plan, which went out for public comment last week. The plan calls for the allocation of another $390 million through the program. That would still leave a $210 million shortfall compared to the estimated $1.3 billion need of the eligible households.
None of these figures include new appeals expected to be filed in the wake of revelations last week that nearly 80 percent of rejections were reversed upon appeal.
On Friday, the state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the recovery process, announced that it was reopening appeals to give anyone eligible a “full and fair opportunity to receive assistance.” Applicants who were initially rejected for aid will soon receive a letter outlining that appeal process, said Commissioner Richard E. Constable III.
More details about that process became clear this week.
Lisa Ryan, a DCA spokeswoman, said residents whose applications to the RREM and Resettlement programs were received by Aug. 1, 2013, were randomly ordered via a computerized system prior to the state’s decision-making. Those applications were then prioritized based on level of damage and financial need.
“If applicants who were initially deemed ineligible successfully appeal, they will return to their original order of prioritization,” Ryan said in a written statement. “This means that those who were in the funded level of prioritization will immediately be made part of the program.”
Applicants who fell outside that level, meanwhile, will be placed in their original order on the wait list, she said.
“Bottom line: homeowners who appeal their ineligibility determination will not be placed at the end of the wait list,” she said.
Last week, a report by Fair Share — representatives of which testified before a legislative hearing Tuesday — found that nearly 80 percent of applicants who appealed their rejections ultimately had their decisions overturned.
Representatives from the DCA attributed the initial rejections in part to inadequate data provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA responded by saying the data, gathered in the first weeks after Hurricane Sandy, were not intended for “long-term damage assessments.”
More than 6,400 applicants rejected for aid based on that data were informed by the state that they could appeal, but they weren’t told about the possible errors. Before the DCA reopened the appeals process last week, 2,424 residents had appealed their rejections and 1,878 — not every case has been decided — were later deemed eligible for assistance.
Fair Share’s data, obtained via Open Public Records Act requests, has also found economic and racial disparities. For instance, in the Resettlement program, Caucasians were denied at a rate of 14.5 percent. That increased to 20.4 percent and 38.1 percent for Latinos and African Americans, respectively.
While the data doesn’t offer clear explanations for the disparities, one possible reason is the same flawed communication that Sandy victims have complained about since the beginning of the recovery. For instance, the state’s Spanish-language website did not contain information on how to appeal decisions until October 2013.
The extension of appeals to applicants originally deemed ineligible also comes after the December firing of the contractor that oversaw the Sandy aid process. The state’s $68 million contract with Louisiana-based Hammerman & Gainer Inc., or HGI, was terminated two years before it had been set to expire. State officials have not commented on the record about the reason for HGI’s firing.
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