Christie administration gave more Sandy funds to controversial Belleville project

By Matt Friedman/The Star-Ledger
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on February 20, 2014

Gov. Chris Christie smiles as he listens to Belleville Mayor Raymond Kimble during a campaign stop in town in August. Christie pushed to give the town millions in federal Hurricane Sandy recovery funds to build a senior complex, even though the town was largely spared by the storm.


TRENTON — A controversial housing complex for the elderly planned for Belleville, an Essex County town that was largely spared from Hurricane Sandy, was approved for a second round of federal recovery funds as its projected costs ballooned.

The project, which was pushed by Gov. Chris Christie, had been approved for $6 million in May from a federally financed, state-administered program intended to replenish affordable housing damaged or destroyed in the storm. But according to figures provided by the Department of Community Affairs last week, that figure has increased, to $10.2 million.

A department website still says Belleville got $6 million, which is what The Star-Ledger cited in a January article on the project — even though the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency increased funding to $10.2 million in December as the anticipated cost rose from $18 million to $22.8 million.

Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs, said the project "changed" and "required a recommitment" by the agency in December.

Construction has not yet begun on the complex, to be called Franklin Manor, although its groundbreaking took place last May with much fanfare and was attended by the governor and several local and county officials. "We understand that the project is scheduled to begin very shortly on or before March 3, 2014," Ryan said.

The initial grant ignited controversy after The Star-Ledger reported that the funds were secured just two weeks before Belleville’s Democratic mayor, Raymond Kimble, endorsed the re-election of Christie, a Republican. Belleville suffered little damage from Sandy when compared with coastal towns that bore the brunt of the storm.

And while state officials say the complex will be marketed to those from other towns who were displaced by the storm, at the groundbreaking Christie made no mention of Sandy and said the development would provide affordable housing for Belleville’s elderly residents so they could stay in town.

"Where does this end?" said Adam Gordon, a staff attorney at the Fair Share Housing Ce nter, an affordable housing advocacy organization. "Can they come back and ask for another $4 million next month?"

Responding to the Belleville project, in addition to a controversial development in New Brunswick and complaints the state has been unresponsive to pleas for Sandy funds, the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee today approved a measure that would place stricter rules on how the state distributes federal aid. Among its 19 provisions is one that would require financing for counties and municipalities in proportion to the damages.

Ryan said her department’s website was not updated with the latest figures for the project because it could not be reported until the governor’s chance to veto the decision of the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, which was Feb. 11, had passed.

She said the full amount of funding "has not been finalized and may be adjusted based on the actual construction budget once determined and reviewed by the HMFA in-house technical services staff for reasonableness."

State officials have also noted that Essex County was eligible for Sandy relief funds because it was identified by the federal government as one of New Jersey’s nine most affected counties.

But the state plan offered last year to the Department of Housing and Urban Development — which was required in order to get the funds — said "priority will be given to projects serving communities most impacted within these counties."

Belleville was not among those communities.

If the cost of the Belleville complex does not change, it will get the second-highest amount of federal money among the 36 affordable housing projects approved by the agency. Only one, the Heritage Village at Oakhurst, a senior housing complex in Monmouth County, received more — $11 million.

Belleville Councilwoman Marie Burke said in an interview she was troubled that construction had not yet begun.

"The only thing we did was have the shovels," Burke said. "We don’t see anything going on, and it’s been nearly a year."

She said that although Belleville desperately needed the housing, it was a "shame" Sandy aid was used to help pay for it.

"We have tried so many times to get senior housing in Belleville and we got denied quite a few times," Burke said. "This looked like a godsend, and then boom. If those funds were intended for people who got hurt by Sandy, it doesn’t look too good to me."

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