Kane In Your Corner: Sandy recovery moving at slow pace
Four years after Sandy, about 3,300 grant recipients have yet to fully rebuild their homes and about 2,000 are still not able to live in them. And everyone from grant recipients to agencies that work with Sandy families tell Kane In Your Corner one of the problems is a system that quickly breaks down whenever things go wrong.
Andre Buranicz moved out of his house in Toms River in September of 2014, for what was supposed to be a 90-day elevation. But more than two years later, the house is just sitting there, not quite ready for him to move back.
"I've been living out of a suitcase for 26 months," Buranicz complains.
His contractor, Atlas Elevation of Louisiana, hasn't quite finished the job. The house has no working plumbing or electricity. Andre says he calls the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) grant program on a regular basis, only to be told "they're working on it."
"They should have a second plan," he says. "If something goes wrong, go to plan B."
After Sandy flooded her home in Waretown, Jill Belloff used her RREM grant to buy a modular home, but the builder, Price Home Group, never delivered the house. The NJ Attorney General has now filed a complaint against Price Home Group on behalf of the Belloffs and other customers. Like Buranicz, Belloff says trying to get help from RREM or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been frustrating.
"They say, 'Let me put you on hold for 47 minutes while I read your case,' and in the middle of the 45th minute you'd get accidentally disconnected, so, yeah," Belloff says.
The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the RREM program, says of the 7,600 homeowners who got RREM grants, 5,700 have now returned home, but those who have not are often frustrated by the slow pace of recovery.
Attorney Rachel Ianeri, of the Community Health Law Project, says the problem often starts with poorly written contracts. She says the State of New Jersey should have come up with standard contracts for homeowners who took part in RREM.
Ianeri says the worst contract she saw simply said "Rebuild house, $150,000" with no further information. That can be a problem, because if a house doesn't meet FEMA standards when work is complete, the state is obligated to take grant money back.
"The responsibility for the project to be completed is on the homeowner," Ianeri says.
Buranicz is in Pathway C, where the state hired the contractor, which means only the state can fire them. That sounds unlikely. Lisa Ryan, Sandy Spokesperson for the NJDCA says, "Atlas Elevation successfully completed 11 Pathway C projects, while only nine...remain unfinished," adding, "DCA has closely monitored their projects as they move towards completion."
Homeowners in Pathway B, like Belloff, hire their own contractors but are often left on their own when things go bad. They can file a lawsuit but Ianeri says that typically takes about two years, and cash-strapped homeowners often can't afford the legal bills. Belloff is one of the lucky ones, because the attorney general's action entitles her to reimbursement for the initial grant money she lost. Any money recovered by the attorney general will, in turn, be retained by the state. Belloff, who was 52 when Sandy struck and will soon turn 57, hopes that means she will finally be able to get back home soon.
Kane In Your Corner was unable to reach Belloff's builder, Price Home Group. The phone number was disconnected. Atlas Elevation, Buranicz' contractor, did not return phone messages.