Fair Share Housing Center


Struggling Sandy Homeowners and Advocates Welcome Clawback Legislation

Posted by Anthony Campisi on January 10th 2018

Legislation is headed to the Governor’s desk that would provide much needed clarity and relief for the latest challenge facing New Jersey’s Sandy families in the RREM program. In October of 2016, Sandy survivors and advocates testified at an Assembly Oversight Hearing about being asked for thousands of dollars back after they thought they had completed the state’s recovery programs in accordance with all guidelines they’d been provided. The oversight committee pledged to introduce legislation to address clawbacks, and that legislation passed unanimously and with bi-partisan co-sponsorship in the Senate and Assembly yesterday.

“Nearly two years ago, my family received a clawback letter from the RREM program that asked for $51,000 back in three years even though the Department of Community Affairs noted our annual income is $57,000 per year. At each meeting we hosted in Sandy impacted communities since, families came with clawback letters in hand. This is an impossible situation for my family and many others. It’s a relief to see the legislature take unified action and we hope the Governor follows suit,” said Julie Suarez, a member of the New Jersey Organizing Project.

“We thank the Legislature for the unanimous passage of much-needed relief to families still struggling to rebuild more than five years after Superstorm Sandy. This bill helps families kept up at night by unaffordable requests to pay back money they received in good faith from state rebuilding programs,” Fair Share Housing Center Associate Director Adam Gordon said. “We hope that Governor Christie will sign this bipartisan legislation before he leaves office, and look forward to working with Governor-Elect Murphy and incoming Lieutenant Governor and DCA Commissioner Sheila Oliver to implement this critical legislation.”

According to the report, The Long Road Home, released on the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy by the New Jersey Resource Project, twentypercent of the families surveyed in the RREM or LMI program were told that they owe money back to the grant programs. More than a third of this group were informed verbally and never provided with written notice. Just over half reported that they wanted to appeal but did not know how to do so. Of the homeowners who reported a clawback amount, the average amount they were told to repay was $30,643, and nearly 90 percent reported that they could not afford to pay the money back.

The new legislation requires the DCA to create a formal appeals process and to publish information about the appeals process on their website. It allows even families that have begun to repay in part or whole to appeal as well, and if they win their appeal, they could see some portion of the funds returned. It also allows for the Department of Community Affairs to reduce or eliminate the clawback based on income and ability to repay, if the agency made an error, if funds were used to rebuild and are no longer available or if trying to recoup them would be ‘against good conscience.’ As it currently stands, families receive letters, or sometimes a verbal warning, from RREM that they owe a sum back. It often isn’t clear from the initial letter provided why the funds are owed. While in some cases these debts are likely linked to the DCA’s interpretation of duplication of benefits under the Stafford Act, there is no way to appeal or adjust the amount based on ability to pay other than to submit additional receipts. Families are then given 3 years or 36 months to repay and simply told to send a cashiers check made out to, “Treasurer, State of New Jersey.”

“I used all the money I received to rebuild. I’m a senior citizen on a fixed income. How am I going to pay back $35,000 in three years? Or even ten years for that matter? If I take all my retirement funds what would I live on? That’s why I’ve been working so hard and coming to Trenton to testify about this legislation,” said Fran Baronowitz from Ventnor and also a member of the New Jersey Organizing Project. “I’m grateful to our legislature for taking action. I hope the Governor signs and look forward to working with our new Governor to help as many Sandy families as we can.”