Participation Dwindles in Home Rebuilding Initiative in New Jersey

By Russ Zimmer, Asbury Park Press | May 4, 2015

More than 15,000 homeowners, whose properties sustained damage during Superstorm Sandy, applied for acceptance into New Jersey’s largest rebuilding initiative, the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program.

Now, almost two years after RREM began accepting applications, 8,300 remain engaged in the program.

Observers are wondering why so many were removed and what that says about a program that has been plagued with delays and rife with frustration.

“Where’s everyone going?” asked Amanda Devecka-Rinear, executive director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, which materialized in response to problems with RREM.

As of last count, 910 homes have been rebuilt through RREM, according to Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which is directing the RREM program and nearly all of state’s Sandy recovery effort. That number of rebuilt homes — which is included in the 8,300 total — does not reflect completions, however, because all homes must be elevated by October 2016.

On the flip side, 1,225 people voluntarily withdrew from the program, walking away from as much as $150,000 in federal grant money, Ryan told the Asbury Park Press.

Paul Jeffrey is one of those.

Jeffrey acknowledges that his RREM project was unique. He only wanted to lift the one section of his home that was below base flood elevation, not the entire structure. He encountered a lot of confusion during the process — that part of the experience seemed to be universal.

His home was not substantially damaged, one of the few on Ortley Beach to avoid that designation, so he was not compelled to raise the home.

Jeffrey said he didn’t want to end up being on the hook for some of the bill and never had any clarity on what aspects of the project he might be financially responsible for. Ultimately, he and his wife decided not to accept the money.

“It was a nightmare trying to get them to simply explain to us what they were paying for and what they weren’t,” he said.

The Tobers in Monmouth Beach were uncomfortable with the idea of not having control over their project but nervous about the consequences of running the project themselves. Not only are unforeseen costs not covered, but RREM puts a deed restriction on the home of those who choose to serve as their own general contractor to ensure that they fulfill program requirements.

Jill Tober withdrew from the program in March 2014 and instead pursued the $30,000 from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which cannot be combined with RREM, and a $30,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to lift their home.

Ryan said the decrease in participation wasn’t surprising to the state.

In fact, the DCA looked at the number of ineligible homeowners, unresponsive homeowners, and voluntary withdrawals and forecasted that the final number of RREM participants would be between 8,000 and 8,500, she said. That means the money set aside for rebuilding and elevating in the $1.1 billion program was allocated with no more than 8,500 grantees in mind.

Those people who are approved but decline the money don’t have to provide a reason, so the public has no way of knowing how many people quit the program out of frustration or because they simply had a change of heart.

More than 11,400 people had either received preliminary approval or were granted a place on the waitlist when the state checked in with their federal benefactors at the end of March 2014, that same total stood when New Jersey checked back three months later. Over the course of the next year, 3,100 people dropped out or were removed from the program.

“Anecdotally, we know some people didn’t want to elevate their homes (substantially damaged homes must be elevated in the RREM Program), meet such federal requirements as green building standards that are a condition of participation the program, or obtain and maintain flood insurance on their primary residence, which is a federal requirement for anyone who accepts CDBG Disaster Recovery assistance to rebuild their home,” Ryan told the Asbury Park Press in an email.

The lack of data hinders the state’s ability to address any obstacles that people find daunting enough to dissuade them from continuing in RREM.

“When one-third of the people that are found eligible disappear from a program, the state should be able to explain why that happened, and to the degree the problems are with the program correct them,” said Adam Gordon, staff attorney with the Fair Share Housing Center, which has been closely monitoring the RREM program.

Topics New Jersey

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