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.

In one program alone, 24 percent of more than 16,000 eligible low- and moderate-income households have received one-time $10,000 disaster-recovery grants, according to the state’s data. In New Jersey, a state with a very high cost of living, that means families earning less than $85,416. This figure represents 120 percent of the state’s median income and the federal government’s benchmark for low- to moderate-income families in New Jersey.

The way that New Jersey and other states trying to recover from Sandy or any other disaster award aid can vary widely. Federal requirements usually mandate that 70 percent of that help go to low- to moderate-income households. But officials inside HUD also have the authority to reduce that requirement after a storm. In New Jersey, after Hurricane Sandy and complaints from housing and civil rights groups, HUD required the state to spend at least 50 percent of the state’s initial $1.8 billion storm-recovery fund helping poor and moderate-income households.

HUD officials confirmed Monday that the agency had received formal discrimination complaints related to storm-recovery activities in New Jersey but declined to comment on their contents or on the range of penalties the state could face if HUD investigators confirm the complaints’ contents. HUD officials did say that although it is important to monitor early inequities in the distribution of storm-recovery funds, it may be too early to reach conclusions about what is happening in New Jersey and other states hit by Sandy.

Housing: More Elusive Than Ever

Christie’s office referred a request for comment about storm recovery and his commitment to affordable housing to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, Sandy Recovery Division. The agency did not respond before deadline to requests for comment about the allegations raised by housing and civil rights activists around the state, or about the contents of the complaints filed with HUD.

“I can tell you, everything is not all good. It’s not even OK for a lot of people down on the Jersey Shore and so many other parts of this state that the governor has never even visited,” says Staci Berger, executive director of the nonprofit Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “If you are not a homeowner on the shore, this particular administration doesn’t seem to be as interested in how you fare.”  

In its own analysis, the Housing and Community Development Network found that about 47 percent of those affected by Sandy were renters — a disproportionate share of whom are black or Latino. But New Jersey officials initially submitted much different information to the federal government in the state’s first request for storm-victim aid. One reason: State officials used a method that counted a storm-damaged 100-unit apartment complex as just one or two addresses, rather than a place where hundreds of people may have lived before Sandy.

The uneven way that storm-recovery funds have been distributed to Sandy victims has complicated an already complicated and expensive housing market, Berger says. New Jersey lacks affordable housing and has a governor who has long opposed its expansion. And even before Sandy hit, wiping out homes and apartments, an average two-bedroom rental unit cost $1,200, according to federal data.

On Monday, McNeil found himself face-to-face with a young woman in an Ocean County homeless tent city, which public officials are trying to clear. Hurricane Sandy slashed business in the restaurant where the woman worked, forcing her boss to cut her hours and, effectively, her pay. Soon the woman couldn’t pay her rent and lost her apartment. The woman told McNeil that she had never received a return phone call from the New Jersey storm-victim hotline where she was told she could apply for aid.

Unfortunately, the woman’s story isn’t unique, says Walsh. Housing activists around the state have heard so many similar stories that they suspect a pattern. People who had the time, transportation and accurate information needed to visit a storm-recovery-aid office to apply in person appear to have been more likely to be approved for all types of aid.

Those who couldn’t get to a center, who could not take hours or days off from work to apply in person and instead applied online or via telephone, were told that they would be contacted with an appointment time when their supporting documents would be scanned into the state’s “paperless” disaster-aid system. Many of those appointments were never set, Walsh says.

“That may sound fine, until you start to think about who disproportionately could not come to those centers in person,” said Walsh. “Effectively, you had the people in the greatest need put in a position where they have received the least help.”

Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.