With reservations, Sandy relief plan OK’d

Connecticut legislators today approved a state plan to use $72 million in federal Storm Sandy relief money primarily to rehabilitate housing that was damaged during the storm last November.

But many expressed reservations, referring to the plan’s lack of detail and the delay in getting funds to those who have been waiting for months.

“How soon will we be getting money on the street?” asked State Rep.  Diana Urban, D-Stonington, whose district includes many shoreline properties. “We have businesses and homeowners that have been in dire straits.”

Evonne Klein, commissioner of the newly-created Department of Housing that is in charge of the funds, said she hopes homeowners still dealing with damage from Sandy will be able to apply for assistance starting this summer. Some $30 million will go toward repairing owner-occupied homes, while $26 million will help to repair multi-family housing, including public housing.

“We are on schedule. We’re on time to get to what we need to get done on behalf of the citizens of Connecticut,” Klein said.

She is facing a tight deadline of early June to submit the final plan to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, (HUD) for approval. Only then will HUD release the $72 million.

Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey’s detailed plans for use of the Sandy relief funds –- more than $1 billion for each state – were released months ago, and HUD has approved them. Over 8,000 homeowners have already applied for housing assistance through New York State’s program for rehabilitating homes with the federal money.

“Why are we behind New York and New Jersey?” asked Urban during a hearing at the state capitol on the state’s plan.

“They didn’t have this particular process to go through,” Klein said, referring to the need for initial state legislative approval. Connecticut requires that the budget, appropriations, and other General Assembly committees sign off on the use of federal grant funds.

“I’m not aware of what New York’s and New Jersey’s formal processes are, but… we’re not behind,” she said.

Legislators also pressed Klein on details of how a home-repair program administered by the state would work.

“What’s the process for funding individual homeowners for repairs?” asked Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, who represents the coastal towns of Darien and Norwalk. “What’s the process for deciding that? What homeowners would be eligible?”

Klein said those who live in a 100- or 500-year floodplain and experienced damage due to recent storms would be eligible for assistance not only to repair their homes, but also elevate them and institute other floodproofing or windproofing measures. She could not provide estimates of how many residents might be helped by the $30 million proposed for owner-occupied homes, or whether the amount of money a particular homeowner could receive would be capped.

The money will help homeowners who did not receive enough money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other insurance, as well as those who are not insured. The plan estimates that insured homes may need $4,000 on average for repairs, while un- or under-insured homes would need $25,000 each. The plan estimates that those who need to elevate their homes would require $41,000 on average.

Mayors of coastal towns challenged those numbers last week in comments they submitted regarding the plan, and said they need more details.

Bill Finch, mayor of Bridgeport, said the data presented in the plan “seems vague.”

Milford Mayor Benjamin Blake said, “It is impossible to provide insightful and well-informed commentary on this plan without knowing where these funds will be allocated.”

Officials and residents also said in their comments that the state’s $41,000 estimate for the cost to elevate a home was unrealistic, because it assumes that FEMA money will cover the rest, bringing the total cost to around $100,000.

“These [FEMA] funds aren’t even available at this time,” wrote Tiffany Sprague, a Milford resident. “…[and] they can take upwards of a year to approve…None of us can wait that long.”

Officials say they expect more money to become available from the federal Sandy relief bill in the coming months and years. Congress appropriated $16 billion in HUD Community Development Block Grants as part of a massive disaster relief aid bill approved in January, and only some of that money has been released so far.

They plan to use that extra money to help with additional needs from homeowners, as well as bigger infrastructure projects and perhaps even a buyout program for anyone who wants to leave the waterfront altogether.

But the amount of additional money available will be limited. HUD has already allocated one-third of the $16 billion, only $72 million of which went to Connecticut.

Klein acknowledged that she has her work cut out for her in the next three weeks.

“This was something that, when I walked into the job, I didn’t know would be part of the time,” she said.

“Our number one priority is to get folks back into their homes,” she said.

Other uses for the $72 million include $4 million to help small businesses who suffered from the storm, $2.2 million for repairing public facilities, and $6 million for administration and planning.

Few details were provided on how exactly those funds would be used, though Klein said she does plan to hire more than 10 “durational employees” with disaster assistance and contracting experience to help administer them.

“I’m the only employee in the the Department of Housing so far,” she said.