Community Affairs Commissioner Says Government is Working on Sandy Recovery

State officials have launched a new program to reduce the number of abandoned, vacant and foreclosed homes in New Jersey. Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable III told NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider that his department is trying to help residents claim abandoned properties to remove blight and help victims of Hurricane Sandy get back into their homes.

Constable said the new program to reduce vacant homes aims to marry vacant properties with renters who need a place to stay. “For-profit and non-profit developers can access up to $30 million in $250,000 chunks where they can take that money and reconstruct, rehabilitate a blighted neighborhood or a blighted property,” he explained.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many homeowners are in need of help to rebuild. Constable said $16 billion of the $60 billion Sandy aid package are focused on community development, housing and infrastructure for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

“We received $1.8 billion of which we’re using $1.2 [billion] on housing programs,” he said. “That was one of the programs — the Neighborhood Enhancement Program — but we’re also focused on homeowners. We have a program to help homeowners rebuild and elevate and mitigate. It’s called the RREM program. And so they can get up to $150,000 to be used at their home to reconstruct.”

The money comes in the form of grants, which don’t have to be repaid. “We understand that some folks have insurance. We understand that folks can get monies through SBA, but there’s gonna be a gap there. And so we’re using grants of up to $150,000. We can help fill that gap and we can help rebuild those homes, make them more resilient,” Constable said. “And as we know, the flood insurance premiums are going up, homes are elevated. We want to give them some monies to do that as well.”

According to Constable, the new FEMA flood maps have had a positive impact on residents and municipalities alike. “There was a large outcry for both individuals and municipalities because there were a huge number of homes that previously weren’t in the V zones, the velocity zones. And as you know, that means they have to be raised up pretty high. From a structural perspective, that’s expensive — north of $100,000. Now with the revisions, about 50 percent of the homes that were previously in the V zones are either out of it entirely or in the A zones where they only have to go up a few feet versus eight or nine feet. So from an economic standpoint, that’s a real boon to both the municipalities as well as the individuals,” he said.

Constable was an active participant in the Superstorm Sandy Town Hall. He said while the progress has been good in many areas of New Jersey, some people are still struggling.

“If you’re one of those folks that either live in northern Jersey like me that was not as much impacted, or part of Monmouth, Ocean and Atlantic [counties] where you were impacted but back in your home, you think the progress is going swimmingly. But if you’re one of those folks that your house remains off its foundation, you’re out of your home, you’re sleeping with a neighbor, it just isn’t fast enough for you,” Constable said. “And we understand that. We’re doing everything that we can from the state level to help everyone — homeowners, renters and so on and so forth. It’s gonna take time.”