New Jersey officials had asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to waive requirements that people applying for the state's largest Sandy housing recovery initiative stop work on their homes when they apply. Work done after the application date is not eligible for reimbursement from the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program.
In an undated letter obtained late Tuesday by The Associated Press, HUD rejected the state's request.
HUD says the rules, which have been the source of many complaints from homeowners struggling to rebuild after the October 2012 storm, are intended to make sure historically significant properties aren't damaged or demolished, and that aid is not duplicated among the numerous Sandy reconstruction programs offered by federal and state governments.
Yolanda Chávez, HUD's deputy assistant secretary for grant programs, wrote to New Jersey Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable listing other reasons why the rule can't be dropped as well.
"If the construction does not meet elevation requirements and must be undone, resources will be spent with no benefit to the recovery," she wrote.
Marc Ferzan, whom Gov. Chris Christie appointed to lead the state's Sandy recovery efforts, said HUD has been cooperative thus far with New Jersey's reconstruction needs. He said the state asked for relief to see if it could help speed the rebuilding process.
"The state has gone as quickly as possible while navigating very arduous federal program rules that are mandatory," he told The Associated Press. "There's a lot of things we'd like to do differently. Would we like it to go faster? Absolutely."
The mandatory cessation of repair work until plans can be evaluated and approved has been one of the biggest complaints voiced by Sandy victims in the 15 months since the storm. It resurfaced repeatedly at the first of three public hearings on how the state plans to spend the next batch of $1.4 billion in storm recovery aid.
Chuck Appleby said he began fixing his storm-damaged home in Seaside Park soon afterward.
"Then I get told I need to stop work," he said at the hearing. "I'm told to do it. I waited seven months. Now I have a $30,000 lawsuit with the house lifter."
The denial comes as Sandy victims are becoming more vocal about their frustration, and as New Jersey's Democratic state Senate president embarked on a storm-related tour with political overtones. Steve Sweeney kicked off a "Sandy Bill of Rights" tour of the state Wednesday morning in Perth Amboy, where he will push his proposed legislation to require better communication and interaction between the state and Sandy victims. Similar sessions are planned for later this week in Toms River and Moonachie.
"This is a colossal failure," Sweeney said. "Imagine being on a waiting list, and you don't know if you're No. 1 or 8,000, and trying to figure it out."
The legislation requires an explanation of what is needed to be eligible and to apply for Sandy recovery programs; the right to know where a relief application stands in the review process and what additional information is needed for it; the right to know why an application was rejected or why a person was placed on a waiting list, and the right to appeal a denial of funding.
Earlier this month, the Fair Share Housing Center said in a report that nearly 80 percent of applicants to the RREM program who were declared ineligible but later appealed were accepted into the program.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC