When the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit in September 2021, FEMA distributed short-term housing assistance to 19,500 displaced New Jersey and New York residents — enough to pay up to two months’ rent.
But Gothamist found that less than 300 — about 1.5% — of those New Jersey and New York residents received the supplemental rental assistance offered by FEMA, intended to help victims of the disaster until 18 months after the storm. The agency said it doesn’t know how many people have requested ongoing help, but defenders said most of the homeowners they heard from were never told the extra help was available first. venue.
Some residents said they were forced into debt or left in uninhabitable homes more than a year after the storm. New Jersey lawmakers and victims’ advocates have said it’s unacceptable that such a small proportion of residents have received extended housing assistance and are calling on FEMA to explain why.
“I find it deeply disturbing that many families have struggled to receive the federal assistance they need from a program that was designed for them,” U.S. Representative Frank Pallone said in a statement to Gothamist. “Many households received emergency housing assistance that sustained them for the initial two months after the storm, but I’m concerned that families may not be getting the support they need a year later.”
Some storm survivors said that without the extra help, they couldn’t afford to pay rent while paying mortgages on their homes damaged during repairs. Some face foreclosure; others used credit cards to cover expenses and eventually returned to their properties before repairs were completed.
“We all feel left behind and forgotten,” said Maryann Morris, 43, whose ranch-style home in Manville, New Jersey, was flooded during Ida. Morris said she applied for extended rental assistance, but was denied after FEMA told her the supporting documents she uploaded were too vague.
Morris said she spent $26,000 renting an apartment for a year but couldn’t afford to keep paying, so she moved back to her house, where she still has no kitchen and cannot cook for her 8 year old. the girl.
“You mourn memories, the loss of family heirlooms. You mourn the loss of things that happened that were happy and good in your home,” she said. “You add that and make it worse with the frustration that the government is unable to give you answers, it makes the situation worse.”
FEMA said it has allocated $41 million in initial rent assistance to 10,700 applicants in New Jersey and an additional $2.3 million in ongoing assistance to 172 applicants in the state. In New York, 8,800 applicants received initial aid and 124 were approved for ongoing aid, the agency said.
Spokesperson Don Caetano said in an email that the small number of applicants who received additional housing assistance could be due to several reasons, such as “applicants no longer need housing assistance or that the candidates were able to return to their pre-disaster accommodation”.
According to FEMA, anyone who received initial assistance but whose primary residence was still uninhabitable, who was not receiving other housing assistance, and who could not afford housing without assistance would have been eligible for a additional help. Caetano said applicants who had property damage worth more than the initial rent they received received requests for additional assistance with future rent payments.
But advocates for the New Jersey organizing plan said they don’t know of any instances where this has happened.
Meghan Mertyris, the organizer of the Hurricane Ida Recovery Project, said most of the survivors she works with still need help. She said many did not know where to apply or that the additional funds existed. And when they tried to call the FEMA hotline for help, they waited for hours with no response.
“After people got their first lump sum from FEMA, they should have been offered an application to apply for that extended rental money. And no one that we know of received the request,” she said. “It’s not that people were turned down. They didn’t even have a chance to be refused or approved.
FEMA also said additional staff had also been hired to ease long waits on its hotlines, which were flooded following hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Florida in 2021, the same year as Ida.
Those who applied for initial assistance also have until March 2023 to apply for continued housing assistance.
Bailey Lawrence, a spokesperson for Governor Phil Murphy, said the New Jersey Organizing Project reported several instances of issues with FEMA rental assistance to the governor’s office “and we immediately raised those issues. cases with our FEMA counterparts to ensure that these individuals could tap into available resources and received the appropriate information.
“Apart from these individual cases, New Jersey is working with FEMA to determine if there have been any issues with housing assistance after Ida given the relatively small number of people who received more than two months of housing assistance,” he said.
FEMA proposed a similar two-step housing assistance process after Sandy a decade ago. About 135,000 residents of New York and New Jersey received initial rent assistance for two months. About 10,100 of those residents — or about 7.5% — got extra help for an additional 18 months under the Continuing Temporary Housing Assistance program. In New Jersey, more than 10% went to continuing aid.
“The number of primary residences that were impacted by Ida is actually very, very comparable to the number of primary residences that were impacted by Sandy, and yet we’re not seeing the same response that we saw during Sandy, in terms of adequate resources and response,” Mertyris said, adding that timing was critical and that by not having the money months ago, survivors’ choices were limited.
Stephanie Hosgood, 38, said she returned to her home in Manville about a month after the storm. She was staying in a hotel with her husband, toddler twins and a 6-year-old, but couldn’t afford a rental while she repaired her house.
“We have nowhere else to go. We can’t rent a place because by renting it, we wouldn’t even know where to start. We also thought rental assistance was for renters,” said she said, adding: “We felt like we didn’t even have a choice. We didn’t have hot water or heating yet, but we came back.”
US Senator Rob Menendez said the last thing storm victims need is to navigate red tape.
“The figures show that many Ida survivors were unable to access or were unaware of the ongoing benefits. FEMA should immediately contact these owners directly to ensure they receive the benefits to which they are entitled,” he said in a statement to Gothamist. “Disaster relief must be simple and easy to access and what we have seen so far is unacceptable.”
The New Jersey Organizing Project wants FEMA to assign case managers to Ida survivors to ensure they receive the assistance they are entitled to, extend the period of housing assistance, and provide a retroactive housing assistance to residents.
Mertyris said long-term disaster recovery reforms will be crucial as climate change threatens stronger and more frequent storms.
“One of the reasons this disaster recovery system is working so poorly right now is that it wasn’t designed to deal with so many disasters at the same time,” she said.
The application form for continued housing assistance can be found here. Residents can also call 1-800-621-3362 or mail a request to FEMA at PO Box 10055, Hyattsville, MD 20782-8055.
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