(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.
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.