We must not forget the civil rights lessons we learned after Superstorm Sandy

Posted May 01, 2020

By Christian Estevez, Richard Smith and Adam Gordon

Just like after Sandy, housing security is again emerging during the pandemic as one of the most serious long-term threats. This time, we need to make sure the needs of traditionally disinvested communities are front and center from the very beginning. We are already seeing disturbing reports of federal funds going to big corporations, including many larger landlords, community leaders said. Above, a home in Newark after Superstorm Sandy. 

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As the state and federal governments gear up to shift from the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic to longer-term impacts, we must learn from the promise and pitfalls of the state’s response to Superstorm Sandy to ensure assistance reaches the most-impacted communities. Much of what we learned from the state’s response following Sandy can be effectively marshaled now.

Rather than focus aid where it was most needed, the administration of former Gov. Chris Christie initially channeled money to towns with little damage whose mayors endorsed his reelection campaign. He allocated a paltry $5 million for the entire state to rebuild damaged public housing.

The Christie administration only revised its plans after our organizations filed a civil rights complaint — an action that led to the largest fair housing settlement in U.S. history, impacting over a half-billion dollars in federal funds. That settlement mandated the state focus resources on the counties that were hardest hit, while setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the workforce and affordable housing destroyed by the storm.

Just like after Sandy, housing security is again emerging during the pandemic as one of the most serious long-term threats that loom over working families, particularly in communities of color and lower-income communities. We are already seeing these communities bear the brunt of the health impacts from the pandemic. These communities have a disproportionate number of workers in many of the hardest-hit sectors and these residents suffer from pre-existing health conditions like asthma and diabetes.

This time, we need to make sure the needs of traditionally disinvested communities are front and center from the very beginning. We are already seeing disturbing reports of federal funds going to large companies instead of small businesses, and tax loopholes in the federal relief package that benefit big corporations, including many larger landlords, without requiring any benefit to workers or tenants. We certainly need more and better targeted, federal aid, and we stand with Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders in their calls for flexibility in federal funds and more funds to support state and local governments.

That said, many of the key decisions will happen at the state level. Unless the state takes quick action, the pandemic will cause a tidal wave of foreclosures and evictions.

Governor Murphy, the courts and the Legislature have taken the first steps to avoid a repeat of that scenario. They have announced temporary moratoriums and relief plans with individual lenders and have allowed renters to use security deposits for rental payments.

The state must now take the next step by establishing housing recovery policies that protect our most vulnerable residents. It is one of the most important things we can do to position our state for an equitable recovery.

Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake and Senator Troy Singleton have both introduced legislation to tackle this issue. These proposals would adopt uniform standards providing economic relief, seeking to prioritize the needs of both renters and homeowners while preventing displacement by rolling out new resident assistance programs. We look forward to working with both sponsors to ensure that any bills sent to the governor’s desk follow several key principles.

Final legislation must include a robust program to prevent renters who have lost their jobs from being evicted once the moratorium is lifted. If landlords are getting forbearance from their lenders, those benefits should also be shared with tenants, as the governor has rightfully suggested but not yet required. And renters should not face eviction immediately after the crisis ends, as immediately repaying all back rent is a totally unrealistic expectation for many renters, especially renters of color who disproportionately have little or no savings due to New Jersey’s persistent wealth gap.

Impacted homeowners also need a robust mortgage forbearance program that prioritizes their needs over banking industry profits by allowing missed payments to be tacked onto the end of mortgages — which again the governor so far has asked, but not required, lenders to do. This will prevent families from being hit with large lump sum payments that could further destabilize families.

Any assistance programs must be made retroactive to the beginning of the crisis and protect families’ credit ratings to prevent the effects of this pandemic from hindering the long-term financial futures of communities of color that have already struggled for generations against discriminatory lending practices.

Finally, Trenton should work closely with existing community groups to ensure that aid actually reaches impacted communities — and ignore the siren calls of the professional disaster recovery industry, which rely on highly paid lobbyists to secure lucrative contracts without local experience.

It’s incumbent upon all of us to learn the lessons New Jersey learned from Sandy to ensure that we act as quickly as possible to ensure that the minute that the state begins to reopen, hundreds of thousands of families are not evicted or foreclosed upon.

 

Christian Estevez is president of Latino Action Network.

Richard Smith is president of New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP.

Adam Gordon is the executive director of Fair Share Housing Center, which reached the largest fair housing settlement in American history after challenging the State of New Jersey’s discriminatory response to Superstorm Sandy.

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