For Lisa Stevens rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy meant down-sizing. The storm destroyed her bungalow in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey.
"I didn't build a mansion! I went smaller because that's what I could afford to do with my grant," Stevens said.
But what has surprised Stevens most about the rebuilding process came in an email from the state of New Jersey. It was what has become to be known as a claw back notice. The email demanded that Stevens pay back more than $7,400 of the grant money she was given to help rebuild. It said she received "duplicate benefits."
Stevens counters that her signed approvals show she did not receive duplicate benefits.
“They knew every dollar amount I was getting,” Stevens said. “They signed off on it.”
Stevens is among the 170-plus homeowners who have received similar notices from New Jersey’s Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation or RREM program.
The NBC10 Investigators found some, like Julie Suarez, with far larger refund demands. Suarez, a public school teacher, was told she owes more than $51,000.
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“You can send us a cashier’s check at your earliest convenience. No ‘why.’ No ‘how to appeal.’ No ‘how to make a payment plan.’ Just, ‘you owe us 50-thousand dollars,’” she said.
Amanda Devecka-Rinear with the New Jersey Organizing Project (NJOP) describes it as “a gut punch” for Sandy victims. Devecka-Rinear is the executive director of the advocacy organization set up to helping Sandy victims. She believes the number of refund demands will only rise as more families finish rebuilding. She also says better oversight could've prevented over-payments in the first place.
NJOP wants the state to clarify its refund calculations, create realistic repayment options, and open a formal appeal process.
"We've gotta look at what financial capacity folks have -- we don't want them to go further into debt, be threatened to lose these houses," said Devecka-Rinear.
The NBC10 Investigators tried to take those requests to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. After two interview denials, reporter George Spencer and photojournalist Dan Lee went to the agency’s Trenton, NJ office. Commissioner Charles Richman finally agreed to an interview at noon that day. But just two hours later, his communications director Lisa Ryan canceled the interview saying urgent and unexpected business came up.
“He has an obligation to answer questions about it,” Spencer said.
“We’ve provided you with a statement,” Ryan replied.
Spencer and Lee waited for Richman to return to the office but after five hours, he did not return.
New Jersey officials have a legal obligation to recover funds that were duplicated, exceeded costs or were used on ineligible expenses. The DCA says any refund letters relate only to those over-payments.
In a statement the agency points out that all impacted homeowners “were afforded the opportunity to provide us with additional documentation (i.e., receipts, invoices) to offset potential recovery of grant funds.”
The NBC Investigators also reached out to Governor Chris Christie’s office. No one replied.
Suarez gets emotional when she thinks about paying back more than $50,000. She says even on the State’s 36-month payment plan, there won’t be enough time to pay the bill. And for Stevens, there’s still no appeal process mentioned.
“I wish I could say this was just a dream,” Stevens said.