KIYC: Sandy victims still waiting to return home

They signed up for Sandy grants to lift their homes, expecting work to be complete in 90 days or less. Nearly 8 months later, there's no end in sight.

And a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds their story epitomizes many of the issues with New Jersey's Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program; the grants provide money without which many residents could not rebuild or lift their homes, but the program is plagued by slow work by contractors and slow payments by the state.

Steve Fritts is visibly frustrated as he rattles the walls of his vacant Point Pleasant home. "You can shake the whole side of the house," he says. "It's not attached to the sill." Fritts has no idea when he'll be allowed to move back in.

Fritts is one of seven Ocean County homeowners who signed contracts to have their homes elevated using RREM grants and had the state assign the work to TMB Services of Lousiana. Homeowners tell Kane In Your Corner they chose Pathway C, in which the state hires the contractor, in part because of the guarantee that work would be complete in 90 days. 

"I believed the state," says Violet Pravata of Toms River. "I believed what (the builder) said."

Nearly eight months later, none of the homes are close to completion. Homeowners were told to move out on October 1, but they say work did not start until just before Christmas. Contractors tell Kane In Your Corner long pre-construction delays are common, because utility companies may disconnect service, then take weeks to issue confirmation letters needed for permits.

By the time homes were finally lifted onto higher foundations, completing the first phase of the project, it was the end of March. That's when the project ground to a halt again. Lisa Visco of Point Pleasant says TMB Services told her it would not resume work in earnest until the state paid it for phase one. So two months later, utilities remain disconnected, stairs not built, and the homes appear not to be bolted down.

"The builder's out of money," Visco says. "No materials can be ordered. Nobody wants to work for him because he owes people money."

Some of the homeowners are now getting lien notices from subcontractors who say the contractor has not paid them. TMB Services declined to be interviewed about its finances or why the project has taken so long. 

Lisa Ryan, Communications Director for the NJ Division of Community Affairs says, "We are closely monitoring TMB Services' performance and working with homeowners if there is an issue." But Kane In Your Corner has learned the state is actually doing more than that; it's concerned enough with the contractor's performance, sources say, that it has taken away all future work.

Other contractors with experience in the RREM program, however, say the state deserves its share of the blame as well, for failing to process payments in a timely fashion. "We're finding that it's taking about eight weeks to get paid," says Barry Heffernan, owner of Tribar Services Inc., which specializes in house lifting. Heffernan says he frequently has to stop work on RREM projects to work on other jobs until payment comes in. "It's bad because I want to get people back in their house quickly," he says. 

But Heffernan also says slow payments only explain so much. He notes that he has never had a house lifting job run anywhere close to eight months.

Ryan stresses that despite its issues, the RREM program has helped a lot of New Jersey families. She says 6,900 people have now signed up for the grants, and more than 6,600 of them have now received at least some funding.

To homeowners waiting to go home, that's little consolation. "Every day, it's tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow," says Pravatta, "But tomorrow never comes."

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