Legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo to make the distribution of Superstorm Sandy recovery and rebuilding aid more efficient and transparent was advanced by an Assembly panel on Monday.
“For many Sandy victims – families who already suffered tremendous loss during the storm – navigating applications for recovery aid and trying to avoid foreclosure has yielded nothing but additional stress and discouragement,” said Mazzeo (D-Atlantic). “This bill will codify and expand upon standards and safeguards for the treatment of those seeking Sandy aid and make the efficient, expedient distribution of funds a priority.”
Mazzeo noted that more than 250,000 New Jersey residents have sought governmental assistance since the historic storm, which resulted in more than $36 billion in damage and recovery needs.
The bill (A-4316) would require the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to establish within 60 days of the legislation’s enactment a timeline setting forth a general estimation of when recovery aid applicants can expect to receive assistance through the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program (RREM) and the Low-to-Moderate Income Program (LMI).
Under the legislation, DCA would be required to provide program applicants with a personal timeline that includes when the applicant should expect to receive 50 percent of the RREM grant money; and when the applicant should expect to receive 100 percent of the RREM and LMI grant money.
The department must also develop special targets for the distribution of assistance to homeowner and renter applicants. At a minimum, the targets shall provide the majority of eligible RREM applicants to receive 50 percent or more of the program funding that the department has awarded them by Dec. 31, 2015 and for all eligible RREM applicants to receive 100 percent of program funding by Sept. 30, 2017
“Reasons for the delays may vary, but at the very least, the state has an obligation to communicate clearly with Sandy victims and make the process of obtaining benefits as user-friendly and transparent as possible,” added Mazzeo. “New Jersey residents deserve better than the non-answers and indefinite waiting periods of the past two years.”
The measure also would require the department to develop within 180 days of the bill’s enactment a website or webpage providing information concerning recovery and rebuilding programs that shall, at a minimum:
– Allow an applicant to submit securely through the website a request for specific information on the current status of his or her application for assistance, to which the department shall respond by phone or email within two business days;
– Provide a plain language explanation of every recovery and rebuilding program, all requirements to apply for and receive benefits, how to file appeals, and a description of the process necessary to correct any deficiency with an application;
– Provide contact information for each builder in the qualified contractor pool and identify any that have been removed;
– Provide and update information regarding the expenditure of recovery and rebuilding program funds and related contracts on a monthly basis;
– Allow an applicant to request his or her individualized timeline for the disbursement of funding through the website, to which the department shall respond by phone or email within two days; and
– Provide information on how all rounds of recovery and rebuilding program funding have been and will be allocated, including:
1) total number of applications submitted for recovery and rebuilding program funding;
2) number of applicants that have received 50 percent or more of the grant money awarded to them;
3) number of applicants that have received 100 percent of the grant money awarded to them;
4) number of applicants that have completed recovery and rebuilding program-funded construction or elevation projects in compliance with local, state and federal building codes and regulations; and
5) the number of applicants that have received a final certificate of occupancy and grant closeout.
The bill would also establish a list of information the department must provide to applicants of the Tenant-Based Rental Assistance program and the Fund for Restoration of Multifamily Housing in order to improve transparency and communication throughout various stages of the application and/or appeals process.
Additionally, the bill would require the department to establish a telephone hotline within 60 days of the bills enactment that would be available, at a minimum of weekdays from 9 am to 9 pm, for applicants to request the general or individualized information that the department must provide under this bill.
The bill also would require the commissioner of DCA to submit a report to the governor and the legislature regarding the allocation of Sandy relief funds within 60 days of the measure’s enactment. The commissioner would evaluate and determine the extent to which the department may provide unused Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds and other funds that may be available to applicants for assistance as interim assistance for mortgage payments and rent.
The bill was approved by the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee.