A Year After Sandy: Poor Still Out in Cold

Housing advocates say that New Jersey disproportionately allocated recovery funds to those less in need of help.

(The Root) — In the year since Hurricane Sandy, a Category 2 storm, washed ashore in New Jersey, it has been Mike McNeil’s job to help people access federal aid to help restore storm-damaged homes or just find a solid and mold-free place to live.

On Monday McNeil, who is chairman of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference Housing Committee, made a stop at housing court, where judges make evictions final from apartments that often cost hundreds more than they did before the storm. He then went to a homeless encampment, which predated Hurricane Sandy, in storm-ravaged Ocean County, N.J., where some victims of the storm have since landed. 

One year after Sandy tore up the East Coast, leaving billions of dollars of damage in its wake, a $26 million ad campaign declaring New Jersey “stronger than the storm” is on the air. On several occasions during the recovery, Gov. Chris Christie and federal officials, including President Barack Obama, have toured the state’s ocean-side tourist attractions and communities with single-family homes. But beneath the state’s seemingly happy story of storm recovery lies what a group of fair-housing and civil rights advocates say is a series of ugly but important truths.

“Sandy shattered lives all over the state, up and down the income ladder,” McNeil says. “The people hit — and I mean hit hard and still hurting — don’t all own homes and businesses at the shore. But they aren’t getting much help.”

In New Jersey’s storm recovery — everything from the way funds have been allotted between the rich and poor, homeowners and renters, to the way recovery programs have been administered — a disproportionate share of disaster-relief funds have gone to the state’s moderate- and upper-income households and homeowners, according to an analysis released last week by a New Jersey nonprofit, the Fair Share Housing Center.

The state’s renters and low- to moderate-income families — most of whom are black or Latino — haven’t experienced anything similar. And key pieces of information — such as how, when and where to apply for federal storm-recovery aid — were, until recently, inaccurate or missing from a Spanish-language storm-recovery website.

It turns out that Category 2 Hurricane Sandy may have more in common with a monster storm, Category 3 Hurricane Katrina, that hit Gulf Coast states in 2005.

Charges of Discrimination in Disaster Relief

“I think we can say without question that officials in the states affected by Sandy did a lot better job getting people out of harm’s way,” says Kevin Walsh, a lawyer with the Fair Share Housing Center. “But I think in the recovery, the subsequent trauma, the disregard for the needs of so many poor and working families, and how many of those people happen to be black or Latino, is certainly similar to Katrina — disturbingly similar.”

In April a group of nonprofit organizations — the Latino Action Network, the New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP and the Fair Share Housing Center — filed an official discrimination (fair housing) complaint against the Christie administration with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This summer the Latino Action Network filed a second complaint, and in October it formally lodged its concerns with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.

In September the Fair Share Housing Center also filed a suit to force the administration to share what it believes should be additional public information about the people who have applied for, received and been denied storm-recovery aid. The group thinks the information might explain or at least confirm a suspected pattern: Low-income residents in counties severely affected by the storm have been denied repair and other recovery aid at an unusual rate, while wealthier and often white households in these same areas have been approved at a disproportionate rate.