Six months later, Sandy aid almost flowing

All you need to know about the $1.8 billion Sandy federal aid package that Gov. Christie is divvying up for homeowners, renters, business and my story in today's Inquirer:

TRENTON - Six months to the day after Sandy made landfall, Gov. Christie announced that $1.83 billion from a federal aid package is officially on its way to homeowners, renters, businesses, and local governments.

The money won't get into the hands of those affected by Sandy until at least the summer, though - a fact that Christie blamed in part on Congress' three-month delay in approving $60 billion for affected states. The bills finally passed after repeated scolding from Christie and other Northeastern politicians.

"When people come to me now, members of the public, and say to me, 'Why is it taking so long?', I say to them, 'I told you,' " Christie said Monday at a news conference. "That's why I was yelling back in November and December and January. . . . I knew every day we wasted up front was tacked onto the back end."

According to the spending plan, about 18,000 homeowners, 7,000 renters, and 10,000 businesses will see assistance in the form of grants and loans. Thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity are expected to follow.

Before the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development approved Christie's plan, a few key changes were made to his original March 19 proposal: Renters will see $75 million in additional assistance, and public housing entities will get $20 million, not $5 million, to repair damaged units.

The changes indicate that the Christie and the Obama administrations heard complaints from dozens of advocacy groups for minorities and the poor, who argued that the original allocations were disproportionately geared toward homeowners and the well-off.

Richard Constable III, the commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs who was in charge of writing the plan, said that money was originally allocated based on data that indicated 72 percent of homeowners suffered major to severe physical damage to their properties, compared with 28 percent of renters.

But "because there was concern" that renters were hit particularly hard, more funds were allocated to rental housing, Constable said. And he noted that more than 70 percent of funds for housing reconstruction are earmarked for low- to moderate-income households.

Advocates for renters were pleased but not satisfied.

Kevin D. Walsh, associate director of the Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill, said the plan "is a good start, but more work remains to ensure that everyone impacted in Sandy has a place."

He said 43 percent of Sandy-affected households were renters and only 30 percent of the housing funds will go to them.

Also complaining Monday was the state chapter of the Sierra Club, which noted that the plan includes $10,000 apiece to entice homeowners to stay in their homes but no money for those in flood areas who want to be bought out by the government. The group also wants money for mitigation programs to deal with sea level rise and climate change.

A land-use reform group, New Jersey Future, also expressed disappointment, saying decisions about safer redevelopment due to documented sea-level rise need to be made now.

Constable stressed that more money is coming and that there are requests for other kinds of grants that would fund buyouts.

This federal infusion is the first of three installments of more than $5 billion in what is known as Community Development Block Grants. It supplements more than $1.3 billion in other federal grants and loans approved for New Jersey, plus $3.3 billion in payments from the National Flood Insurance Program.

Christie used Monday's announcement to highlight these numbers and tout what he described as the state's continued recovery. He said just six schools remain closed, all NJ Transit buses and trains are up and running, and only 61 households are still receiving aid for shelter - down from 2,696.

"We're not here to take a victory lap, because we know that we haven't achieved victory yet, anywhere near it," Christie said at the news conference with HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. "We're here to just say . . . we will not forget you."

Christie is also seeking to bring tourists to the Shore this summer to stimulate local economies and keep tax dollars flowing. In an unusual move, Obama officials approved Christie's request to use $25 million of the block-grant funds for a tourism campaign.

Almost all of the federal aid, though, goes to homes and businesses.

Specifically, the plan calls for: $600 million for housing rehabilitation and elevation grants of up to $150,000 apiece; $180 million for $10,000 grants to entice those thinking of selling or abandoning their damaged homes to stay; $40 million to rental-property owners who agree to lease their units to low- and moderate-income households; $460 million for business grants and loans; and $116 million for state and local governments to maintain essential services.

"Today is the beginning of us getting to Phase Two of a return to normalcy," Christie said.

Applications will be available online for affected businesses in May and homeowners in June, Constable said. The applications will then be approved and the money sent some time after that.

More information is available at, or by calling call 855-SANDYHM (855-726-3946) for housing assistance and 855-SANDYBZ (855-726-3929) for business help.