LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Fair Share Housing Center Sues State for Not Revealing Why Families Denied Sandy Aid

By Lauren Wanko
NJ Today

Ocean City resident Steve Fenichel says he’s fed up with what he calls the state’s lack of transparency on the Sandy rebuilding grant programs. Fenichel doesn’t understand why he doesn’t qualify for the financial assistance.

“I feel that there is something rotten in the state of New Jersey and I really feel that whether it’s a major kind of give hope and then take it away or some political reason or misuse of funds,” Fenichel said.

Fair Share Housing Center, an advocacy group for affordable housing, insists they’re just as frustrated. The center sued the state for what they call the administration’s failure to provide the most basic documents on why thousands of families have been denied assistance in rebuilding post-Sandy.

“We haven’t and many people impacted by Sandy, haven’t been able to get answers to the most basic questions about how the state’s spending its money on recovery. We don’t know what the criteria are that are used to decide who gets grants and who doesn’t. We don’t know what the process is for appeals, we don’t know how they’re choosing people,” said Fair Share Housing Center Staff Attorney Adam Gordon.

In July, Fair Share Housing Center filed an Open Public Records Act request for guidelines that explain the selection process for three Sandy rebuilding grant programs.

“We waited six weeks for the state to give us the most basic information and they still refused, so that’s why we’re going to court,” Gordon said. “In our experience, usually when a government agency is this recalcitrant to share information, they’re hiding something.”

We asked the Christie administration to respond and have heard nothing. Back in Ocean City, Fenichel is desperate for answers. He can’t afford to elevate his home. The Cape May County resident applied for two grant programs in May. He received letters from the DCA stating he doesn’t meet the eligibility requirements because there’s no confirmation of a FEMA registration number. Fenichel insists he thought he already applied for a FEMA registration number since he received a flood insurance claim settlement.

“I thought I was having received my check which on the check statement clearly puts FEMA as one of the responsible parties in granting us this money,” Fenichel said.

Fenichel called FEMA. The registration deadline had passed but an employee still provided him a number. Fenichel appealed and got a second rejection letter, this time from FEMA saying his appeal was denied because the application was submitted after the deadline.

“It’s almost like the old trickster saying gotcha! Where’s your FEMA registration number? You know, even though we didn’t ask it anywhere on the online application or with the counselor that I met with at Renew New Jersey, that’s where they say they got me,” Fenichel said.

Fenichel says he hopes Fair Share Housing Center is successful in forcing the state to release the grant eligibility criteria. Meantime he says all he can do now is sit and wait and hope justice will prevail.