After Closing On A RREM Grant, DCA Says A New Home For Vietnam Vet Is Not In The Cards
By Art Gallagher
A Vietnam Veteran from Highlands and his 65 year-old wife had their expectations of a new home crushed last week when their RREM approved builder informed them that a stop work order had been placed on their project by the Department of Community Affairs, with no explanation. The family had prepared their house for demolition, based upon promises from DCA/RREM, and now fear they will be without a home.
Russell Card, a 72 year-old Vietnam Veteran from Highlands closed on his $150,000 RREM grant on July 28. He put up his $18,000 escrow to cover the difference between the cost of the project and the amount granted. Card, his wife Maureen and son Russell Jr, 35, prepared their home (which was built in the 1890’s and in the family since 1933) for demolition. They moved most of their belongings into a POD on their immaculately maintained property and moved themselves into an apartment the size of the living room in the Bay Avenue house they have lived in since 1986. By mid-September all the utilities were disconnected at the house and it was ready for demolition before their new home would be built. The funding for the new home was the RREM grant, a gap grant of $30,000 from Gap Funding Initiative and $17,762 that was remaining from a $55,000 grant Mrs. Card had received from her employer, CareOne, after Sandy filled their home with eight feet of water on October 29, 2012.
On Thursday September 25th, Card got a phone call from his builder, Chris Adler of America’s Home Place in Wall. Adler had received a stop work order from the Card’s RREM project manager at CBI-Shaw, one of two contractors who are managing the RREM Program. There was no explanation for why the project (which was closed on almost two months prior) was ordered stopped.
Card Sr. called his RREM Housing Advisor Deanna Loicono, a DCA employee, who, he says, confirmed the stop work order. She said it was for “non-compliance with FEMA insurance” and that there was nothing that she could do. Card said Loicono told him that she had appealed “all the way up to the governor’s office” and that the decision was final. The Cards were crushed and baffled. The fact that they did not have flood insurance had been addressed repeatedly throughout the almost year-long process leading up to their RREM closing. They had been through eight meetings with RREM, FEMA and their builder. They had agreed to insure the new home after it was built. They thought the deal was done and acted accordingly. They had absolutely no indication that there were any issues remaining on their project until Adler, their builder, called them wondering if they had heard anything from RREM. They had not.
Christine Card, 39, Russell Sr. and Maureen’s daughter reached out to me via social media. I met with the Cards in their ready-for-demolition home on Sunday, September 29. They told me their story as best they could through their upset.
We reviewed their documentation. There was a notification from FEMA dated November of 2013 rejecting them for aid because the home did not have flood insurance. Yet RREM accepted their application for funding, signed by Loicono, on April 10, 2014. They received notification from the Gap Funding Initiative (GFI) that they were approved for a $30,000 housing assistance grant to cover costs of the proposed new home that exceeded the $150,000 RREM grant. There is an undated notification informing them of a federal Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery grant from the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Mitigation and Elevation (“RREM”) Program with wiring instructions for $47,761.71 escrow required for the unmet need of their project. Card Sr. and Loicono both signed a closing statement attesting that “I certify that to the best of my knowledge the information contained in the document is neither false nor misleading.” The grant agreement itself was signed by Card Sr. and notarized by Mary K. Donnelly, but left unsigned by “State of New Jersey, Department of Community Affairs”.
The Cards had no documentation indicating a problem with their project. No written notification that the project was stopped or on hold. As of this writing, they still don’t have any documentation indicating there is a problem or that their deal with RREM has been terminated.
Loicono would not talk to me when I called her on Monday and identified myself as the publisher of this website. She referred me to Lisa Ryan, Director of Strategic Communications for the Department of Community Affairs – Sandy Recovery Division.
Anticipating that Ryan would not get into the specifics of the Card’s situation, I decided to go “undercover” and not identify myself as a blogger or journalist as I continued to research the Card’s problem.
I called Ryan at DCA and was given her email address. I emailed my questions to her, identifying myself as the publisher of this site.
Then I called CBI-Shaw and asked to speak to the Card’s project manager, without identifying myself as a blogger/journalist. Adler, the builder’s representative, told me that the RREM project manager was CBI-Shaw. The nice woman who answered the phone would not even tell me the name of the project manager without Card’s authorization. She emailed me a “Permission to Access Applicant Information” form, which Card signed designating me as his “Non-Attorney Advocate.” I emailed the form back to the nice woman and was referred to the project manager.
The project manager, who I will not name because he was not authorized to speak to the media, was very forthcoming and helpful after he asked, “You’re just a friend of the Cards?” “I’m their friend and non-attorney advocate,” I replied. His butt was covered, which is the point of this paragraph and the previous three. This article is part of my advocacy for the Cards.
Here’s what happened, according to the project manager:
“A day or two” after the Card’s closing, FEMA put a hold on the project, saying that they were reviewing the Card’s grant and others for compliance. The project manager said that Loicono checked a box on a computer log on July 31st indicating that the Card’s had been informed of the hold.
The Card’s insist that they were not informed that their project was put on hold in July. Loicono did not protest that she informed them in July ( after the closing) that there was a problem when they called her last week and again on Monday. Obviously, having moved out of their home and prepared it for demolition, the Card’s did not act as if they had been informed that the grant they closed on was under review. Card Sr is reviewing his cell phone bill for calls from Loicono’s cell phone or DCA for July 29-31. He is confident that there was no call. There was no letter.
The project manager received a stop work order from DCA on Wednesday the 24th or Thursday the 25th which he forwarded to Adler at America’s Home Plan, the builder. The stop work order had no explanation. Adler received no notice of the post-closing hold on the project or any other indication that there was a problem until he received the stop work order and called Card Sr on the 25th.
The non-compliance issue is the lack of flood insurance of the Card property. That issue was fully disclosed and discussed throughout the almost year-long application process through closing.
Ryan, the DCA spokesperson, responded indicating that the Christie Administration knew that RREM applications on homes without flood insurance and prior claims were problematic. Ryan said that the Administration had requested exceptions to the flood insurance requirement since “earlier this year.” She said that “earlier this year” DCA called all RREM applicants who received federal flood disaster assistance for a prior disaster and failed to maintain flood insurance to inform them there was a possibility that the federal government would not allow them to benefit from the RREM Program.”
That’s a lot of phone calls. It should be easy enough to document them. That DCA chose to make those notifications via telephone rather than in writing is disconcerting and hardly a “best practice.”
Here is Ryan’s statement to MMM sent via email yesterday:
“Because the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM)Program is funded through federal dollars, federal privacy laws and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) policies prohibit us from providing Personally Identifiable Information (PII) about individual applicants in the program. Please be advised that the DCA is communicating directly with the applicant.
To the issue you noted yesterday regarding maintaining flood insurance, here is some general information. Earlier this year, the Christie Administration asked FEMA to grant narrow exceptions to federal law in limited, hardship instances for those Sandy-impacted homeowners in the RREM Program who can decisively demonstrate that they did not maintain flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) due to:
- significant financial hardship in paying NFIP premiums;
- a proven absence of clear, written direction or an agreement dictating the requirement to maintain flood insurance; and/or
- the removal or lapse of the NFIP requirement was outside the applicant’s control, such as a mortgage lender who removed the requirement as part of a work-out to avoid foreclosure.
Despite the Christie Administration’s request for a limited waiver of the Stafford Act, FEMA recently determined that the federal law was unambiguous and did not permit any exceptions. Therefore, the State is prohibited in providing federal disaster recovery assistance to repair, replace or restore property owned by any individual who previously received federal flood disaster assistance and failed to maintain flood insurance.
The DCA earlier this year called all RREM applicants who received federal flood disaster assistance for a prior disaster and failed to maintain flood insurance to inform them there was a possibility that the federal government would not allow them to benefit from the RREM Program. With FEMA’s recent denial of the State’s request for a limited waiver, we are now in the process of contacting these RREM applicants to inform them of FEMA’s determination. Some of the applicants have already been contacted.
Unfortunately, FEMA informed us that the State has no jurisdiction over this federal matter.”
“This is worse than the storm,” Card Sr. said on Sunday as we reviewed his documents searching for an answer as to why his project was stopped or what he could do to fix the situation. He joked that his current situation was more frightening than the artillery fire he dodged while in South-East Asia in the 1960’s.
The Cards remain in limbo, uncertain whether to prepare to move back into their home or even if it is legal for them to do so. A simple and unassuming family, the house is all they have. They say they would have been content to live in the house that they repaired with funds granted by Mrs. Card’s employer post-Sandy, warped floors and all.
The have reached out to the Community Health Law Project for assistance.
However well intentioned, it is apparent that the Christie Administration did not clearly communicate with the Cards “earlier this year” or since FEMA quashed the grant that had already been closed.