New Jersey will channel more than $200 million - in addition to $379 million already allocated - to build replacement rental homes for residents affected by Hurricane Sandy, officials said Friday.
It will also, for the first time, prioritize the most affected communities across nine counties, giving special attention to Ocean, Atlantic, and Monmouth.
The action came as part of a settlement involving the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the State of New Jersey, its Department of Community Affairs, and the complainants: the Latino Action Network, the New Jersey NAACP, and the Fair Housing Center, a Cherry Hill advocacy group.
The voluntary compliance and conciliation agreement establishes a $15 million pool for immediate help to renters left homeless by Sandy. It can be used for up to two years while replacement houses are built.
It also provides $10 million to help people in manufactured homes rebuild, along with an additional $10 million - in addition to $50 million previously allocated - to help people with special needs affected by Sandy.
Gov. Christie's office said the agreement "continues the administration's commitment to helping low-income and minority families get recovery program assistance, and addresses the concerns put forward by the advocates."
The settlement is "absolutely a victory for the people impacted by the storm," said Kevin Walsh, associate director of the Fair Share Housing Center.
"We spent the last year and half, along with the NAACP and Latino Action Network, identifying the problems with the recovery from Hurricane Sandy - and this agreement goes a long way toward addressing them," Walsh said. "It won't be a panacea, but it will do a lot."
New Jersey NAACP president Richard Smith called the settlement an important step forward.
"It is good to put this particular disagreement behind us so people impacted by Sandy get a fair shot at recovering," he said.
"We identified several areas where the state and the civil rights community could find common ground on how to make the recovery work well for everyone," Smith said. "The NAACP looks forward to seeing this money reach the families, seniors, and people with disabilities on whose behalf we filed the complaint."
Latino Action Network president Frank Argote-Freyre said the settlement "will help Spanish-speaking New Jerseyans and others who are still out of their homes get information that wasn't provided to them before."
"Spanish-speaking staff will be available at every recovery center, and homeowners and renters will be given the chance to live in or closer to their homes that were damaged," he said. "We have one more chance to get this right, and I am hopeful that this agreement will help the state do a better job."
The agreement is expected to significantly expand affordable-housing opportunities for lower-income households and substantially increase the state's outreach efforts for those who cannot read or write English well or at all.
It requires the state to provide equal access to non-English speakers for all programs funded with HUD disaster-recovery money and to build a bilingual website for all programs.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) said he heard numerous complaints from Spanish-speaking residents who were having trouble accessing recovery programs in person or via the state's Spanish-language website.
"The people of New Jersey need to know that the Sandy recovery effort is being run fairly, efficiently, and transparently," said Menendez, who questioned HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan during a March hearing about how he would work with the state to improve federally funded Sandy recovery programs.
"While there are still important issues remaining to be resolved, I hope that today's agreement with community stakeholders can help pave the way for improved responsiveness to the needs of New Jerseyans who were hit hard by Sandy," he said.
The settlement announced Friday also allows affected residents to receive money without a substantial-damage letter previously required by the state and will let renters and owners show concrete proof of damage through other means such as home inspections if FEMA calculated damage incorrectly.
It requires the state to comply with open public records requests related to Sandy in a timely fashion and to provide more public information to make sure Sandy aid is distributed fairly.
"Working-poor families impacted by Sandy should have the same rights as everyone else to rebuild their homes and lives," said Christian Estevez, executive vice president of the Latino Action Network. "This agreement will help make the Sandy recovery more fair and inclusive."