As Fight Continues for Sandy Victims in 2018, NJOP Lays Out Problems, Solutions

Issues at Hand: Clawbacks, Contractor Fraud, Foreclosures
Feb 14, 2018
Photo by: Jay Mann

On his last day of office, Gov. Chris Christie pocket-vetoed the “clawbacks” legislation that had been in the works since October 2016, but the New Jersey Senate reintroduced it earlier this month. The Southern Ocean County-based advocacy and activism group New Jersey Organizing Project has created a helpful explanatory webpage for those still struggling post-Sandy to read about challenges, solutions and other survivors’ stories.

What are clawbacks? Many residents are being notified by the RREM program, in the form of a letter or verbal warning, they need to pay back a portion of their grant funds. What isn’t always clear is why.

“While in some cases, these debts are likely linked to the DCA’s interpretation of duplication of benefits under the Stafford Act (federal law),” according to NJOP Director Amanda Devecka-Rinear, “there is no way to appeal or adjust the amount based on ability to pay, other than to submit additional receipts. Families are then given 36 months to repay and simply told to send a cashier’s check made out to ‘Treasurer, State of New Jersey.’”

NJOP’s position is that Sandy victims “deserve a real appeals process for clawbacks – one where we can actually understand the calculation, and why we’re being asked to pay the state back,” she said. “We deserve to have the clawbacks eliminated or reduced significantly. Even if the calculations ‘make sense,’ they still don’t – we signed every document, followed every rule and used every dollar to rebuild our homes, and we may still be paying off Small Business Administration disaster loans, or other loans we took out to get home or hang on until we could.”

According to “The Long Road Home,” a report by the New Jersey Resource Project released on the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, 20 percent of families surveyed in the RREM or LMI programs were told they owe money back to the grant programs, Devecka-Rinear explained. More than a third of this group were informed verbally and never provided with written notice. Just over half reported that they wanted to appeal but did not know how to do so. Of the homeowners who reported a clawback amount, the average amount they were told to repay was $30,643, and nearly 90 percent reported that they could not afford to pay the money back.

“Part of the problem is that New Jersey’s RREM program only gave people up to $150,000 – where New York City, for example, gave up to $300,000,” Devecka-Rinear said. “Many families needed additional funding from other sources covered under the Stafford Act, and that wasn’t a great start. The other part of the problem is largely the inconsistent, confusing way the RREM program was administered.”

Many families have been further delayed by waiting for a charging document from a law enforcement agency to move forward with grant adjustments after contractor fraud. Two thousand days after Sandy, contractor fraud still keeps families out of their homes even if they have engineering reports or other sufficient evidence of fraud.

Where foreclosure legislation is concerned, some people got their banks to comply and others ran into roadblocks.

“All families that need assistance under the Sandy foreclosure legislation should get it,” according to NJOP. “Banks must be made to respect the law, and there are likely families who could still benefit from a forbearance who may not have initially applied. We need to continue to stop foreclosure on Sandy families.”

NJOP believes the best solutions are achieved by community members working together and the best course of action is to enlist the help of new Gov. Phil Murphy and DCA Commissioner Sheila Oliver to support the legislation and expand the beneficial programs that help families who are still putting back together the pieces of their lives.  —V.F.

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