The first floor of Margaret Quinn’s home in Toms River, N.J., sits mainly empty. A borrowed couch and her old, warped dining room table rest on bare plywood floors that don't quite meet the walls. For months, she and her family have lived almost exclusively upstairs, each tucked in their own rooms or huddled together to watch TV in one bedroom.
While good news is rolling in for many New Jersey homeowners who are receiving letters approving them for Superstorm Sandy recovery grants, many more still linger on the wait list for these programs 15 months after the storm — not knowing if or when they might get money to help put their homes and lives back together.
Quinn's house sustained so much damage during Sandy that she's now required to elevate it, an expensive process that also involves building a new foundation, separating the home from its garage, and adding new decks and stairs, among other changes. In total, she estimates it will cost $130,000 more than simply repairing the home’s storm damage, which her insurance will cover.
“So it's definitely a very complicated lift, which, without grant funding, my husband and I are still talking how we are going to do this,” she said on a recent afternoon, her voice echoing in the empty living room. The family already has two mortgages on the property and Quinn says she can't afford another loan. But she is still hopeful it won’t come to that.
She's been wait-listed for the state's main grant program, known as the RREM grant, since last summer. It gives homeowners up to $150,000 to use for elevation and reconstruction costs.
Recently, New Jersey received permission from the federal government to shift some money from undersubscribed grants for businesses into two different programs for homeowners that have long waitlists — the RREM Grant and the Resettlement Grant, which provides homeowners with $10,000 if they agree to remain in the county where they live for three years. About 1,200 people were moved of the waitlist for the Resettlement Grant.
For the RREM Grant, 1,000 waitlisted applicants will now receive funding. But Quinn wasn't one of them.
“More waiting,” she said. “I think at least if they release where we are in the waitlist, that would be a step in the right direction.”
More than 4,300 applicants have been approved for RREM grants so far, though 7,000 will remain on the wait list. The state does plan to let people know where they fall on the waitlist, so they can try to gauge their chances receiving funding. It's still possible that after all these months of waiting, Quinn may not be approved at all — there's just not enough money to meet the needs of all applicants.
“If I'm earlier on this list, then living like this for another few months, I'm OK with,” she reasoned. “But living like this for another few years, I'm not OK with.”
A spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which oversees certain types of Sandy recovery funding, said the agency is hoping to finalize a plan for the state’s second wave of federal relief funds — some $1.4 billion — by the end of January. After a 30-day comment period, it will submit the plan to the federal government for approval. Only after that approval is given can it begin to disperse the funding and move more homeowners off the waiting lists for its various grant programs.
In the meantime, Quinn and her family will continue to live upstairs while they wait for more information about their status and construction permits from their town.
“Every time you walk down the steps, you just remember what we had and what's not there anymore,” said Quinn.
Coming down the stairs, she also sees the phrase, "There's no place like home," written above the inside of her front door. She added it when the family moved back after the storm.