Did not encourage people to rebuild, Christie says

By Amy S. Rosenberg, Inquirer Staff Writer

Posted: July 19, 2013

TOMS RIVER, N.J. – Gov. Christie said Wednesday that he never encouraged homeowners to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy with the expectation that they would be reimbursed by the federal government.

While the state said this week that 3,500 grants of up to $150,000 in federal aid money had been awarded, thousands more homeowners found out that they were declared ineligible or wait-listed.

And those with more than 50 percent damage to their homes were told they would not be reimbursed for work already done.

“Right after the storm, we did not encourage people to rebuild,” Gov. Christie said at a news conference where he announced $44 million in essential-services grants to Sandy-impacted towns to limit “collateral damage” from plummeting ratables.

Christie denied that he gave misleading advice to Sandy victims about rebuilding even if they were counting on federal grants. “We told folks these were the rules from the beginning,” he said.

At a Manasquan town meeting in March, Christie said, “We’ve worked this out with the federal government that if you make arrangements now to have your home raised, that we will be able to reimburse folks for that, OK?” according to a transcript provided to the Asbury Park Press.

But Wednesday, Christie and his press secretary said he did not intend to suggest a general policy of reimbursement for all work done.

“He gave so many caveats,” said press secretary Michael Drewniak. “It was very much in flux. We were working out the pieces with HUD.”

As it stands, those pieces allow for reimbursement for work already completed only in cases where the damage was less than 50 percent.

In homes with more extensive damage, the federal government will not reimburse work done without its own environmental and historic review. However, those homeowners may still receive grants for work still to be done.

Christie also said his urging of homeowners in January to rebuild according to requirements of preliminary FEMA flood maps was aimed at those with the means to do so on their own and not those counting on reimbursement or other aid.

The governor Wednesday called the rebuilding of the state and the parceling out of various aid sources “as complex an issue as I’ve had to deal with in government.”

Richard Constable, the commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, said the state was still trying to persuade HUD to extend the reimbursement policy to homeowners with more than 50 percent damage.

He said the typical homeowner will receive funding from a variety of other sources, including insurance, FEMA, and nonprofit groups.

Changed this week was a federal policy in which those who applied for a Small Business Administration loan were declared ineligible for federal grant money even if they had declined to accept the loan. Now, those declining SBA loans are still eligible.

More than 12,000 people have applied for the Resettlement and Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation grants of up to $150,000.

Constable said 8,500 were declared eligible and 3,500 would get grants.

Because of the extent of demand, the application period will end Aug. 1. People can apply at www.renewjerseystronger.org or 1-855-SANDYHM. Priority is given based on extent of damage, location in a severely impacted county, and a formula that reserves about 60 percent for lower income people.

Christie said the numbers only go so far: the $20 billion in federal aid to the state is aimed at $37 billion in damage, and is spread among homeowners, renters, governments, infrastructure, and business needs. “We will not be able to reimburse every dollar,” he said.

Even as the DCA was awarding grants, discouraged homeowners tweeted their frustration at the governor.

“@GovChristie we waited,” tweeted Jeannette Van Houten of Union Beach. “We have been patient. UR staff messed up the RREM process. ‘clerical issues.’ Beat down. Tired. Can’t keep waiting.”

Christie tweeted for patience: “We are waiting for the federal government to issue the next phase of funding. Stay tuned.”

In Toms River, Christie said the essential-services grants – $28 million to Toms River, including $12.5 aimed at the school district – averted layoffs of dozens of police and cuts in public works and engineering departments. He said taxpayers might have seen increases of 30 percent the burden of recovery to undamaged homeowners.

Grants were also awarded to Atlantic City, Brigantine, and Little Egg Harbor schools and six others.

But Christie cautioned the money might not be there next year. “We’re not saying to any mayors you can count on this money next year,” he said.

Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-576-1973 or arosenberg@phillynews.com. Follow on twitter and instagram @amysrosenberg.


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