Waiting and waiting to go home: Many storm victims not home yet
“We just want to get home,” said Joe Mirmina, one of Storm Sandy’s victims.
Mirmina and his wife, Ann-Marie, are two of many Milford shoreline residents still struggling through red tape to get the government money they’ve been promised to fix their storm-damaged houses and move back home.
Their stories are complicatedly similar.
The Mirminas have been out of their home at 22 James Street near Silver Sands Beach about two years. They have applied for loans and grants, and while they received rental assistance and other private funding, they haven’t gotten any of the much-touted government aid aimed at helping them fix their home.
Like others in Milford who are still riding the same storm wave, they’re paying rent to live where they are now, and paying their mortgage and taxes on a house they can’t live in.
The Mirminas are a little luckier than some. They were renting a home in Trumbull but are now living in the home of Mirmina’s late father. There’s no rent to pay, but there are taxes and insurance, on top of what they pay for the James Street house.
So things still aren’t easy.
Things are complicated and frustrating. First, people who have been told they need to elevate their homes cannot fix them until they are elevated and therefore cannot live in them. That’s why the Mirminas aren’t home yet.
The couple is waiting to hear if they will receive a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant to fix their home. They aren’t sure where the application stands: Joe said government officials recently sent people out to measure for repairs, even though Joe already spent $10,000 for renovation plans. So he doesn’t know what’s going on.
Then there are the financial questions about making the repairs. If the couple gets the money to repair and elevate their home, they wonder if they will be stuck in a house they may want to sell. HUD pegged repairs at $227,000, higher than Joe would have estimated because HUD requires higher level, energy-efficient components. The couple has some of the money, and might get $150,000 from HUD, but Mirmina said if they take the government money they can’t sell for five years. And, if they put all their own money into the repairs, they may be throwing their money into a house whose value is declining drastically because of the cost of flood insurance. If flood insurance increases to a level they fear it may, they may not be able to afford to live in the house anyway.
In many ways they feel stuck.
On top of it all, the Mirminas are also fielding complaints from their neighbors because their property is looking a bit neglected these days.
But the paperwork process of applying for funding is the worst, the couple said. “It’s a paperwork nightmare,” Joe said.
Melanie Hamilton, whose house is at 880 East Broadway, said her family is still out of their house also almost two years after Sandy.
“We lost it in Irene and used our savings and the small amount the insurance gave us,” she said. “We were in it five weeks and Sandy hit. We are living in an apartment and still paying on our mortgage. I do not want to lose our house — we have lived there 11 years.”
The house is small, only 550 square feet, but she loves it and lived there comfortably with her husband and eight-year-old child, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
“We have lost almost all of our savings and have had to move to my mother’s during Irene and then my sister’s after Sandy and used up all of our family living arrangements,” she said. “We lost furniture, clothes, shoes, lawn equipment, appliances ... almost everything.”
Though she’s applied, she said she hasn’t yet received government funds to repair or elevate her house. She also said she’s afraid to live in a house 12 to 15 feet in the air with a handicapped child.
“The stairs will be almost impossible for him and me to do,” Hamilton said.
She said a HUD official told her it would cost $265,000 to lift and fix the house, but she said she hasn’t heard anything more from the agency. According to city records, the house is appraised at $150,000.
Hamilton is frustrated.
“I will not be able to pay my mortgage in approximately 90 more days,” Hamilton said. “Whatever money I have left will have to go to my apartment rent — I need somewhere to live. I just feel after living here my whole life, paying the crazy amount of taxes that we do, never missing a payment on my mortgage after two hurricanes, running a small business in town, doing everything I am supposed to do ... no one is going to help me. Ruin my credit, take my house, and basically ruin me financially and no one cares but they keep taking my tax money.”
Cynthia Jacobsen of Milford is more than a bit irritated that there’s been lots of publicity about federal and state funds to help storm victims rebuild, but Milford’s victims haven’t gotten any yet.
“Getting information about the funding availability and status has been haphazard and primarily through a grass-roots group,” Jacobsen said, “not the government.”
She applied for an SBA loan and was denied: She applied for money from a HUD program and was denied after submitting 300 pages of documentation.
“I was told I was submitted for the second round of HUD and have heard nothing,” Jacobsen said. “No one called me back when I tried to inquire multiple times regarding the Grant for Historic Properties and could find nothing on the Internet regarding applying.
“I don’t qualify for the FEMA program for Severe Repetitive Loss and Repetitive Loss properties, even though I have been hit two years in a row,” she added.
And that’s just the beginning of her tales of government grief.
“This process for funding has been horrific,” Jacobsen said. “I know many people who are so frustrated they just gave up and either walked away from their properties or had to secure personal funding sources. God help us if we get hit with another storm this fall — from what I understand then all bets are off for any money and you have to start from scratch again.”
Paola Goren said there have been many obstacles for storm-hit homeowners, and the latest just came recently when the federal government ruled that any homes over 50 years old need architectural plans in order to apply for federal funding, and those plans can cost over $10,000.
“Right now after much complaint, including my own, they are now putting a hold on that request and we are all waiting to hear back about what the next steps are,” Goren said.
“The other grant — the Community Development Block Grant Program — was also offered last year and this is for rebuild/repair/and elevation,” Goren said. “I’ve heard that they’ve started to get to homeowners but it’s a slow go and a lot of the plans/documents, etc. that people have paid for in advance they are having redone — both a waste of time and money.
“There is also the Historic Preservation Grant that we all applied to as well and many of us were told would be a better option,” Goren continued. “But then when I applied I didn’t receive any notification and then six months later when I called in to check I was told a letter went out to me that said they needed more information. But I never got the letter and then was told that I was correct, the letter came back to their office — no one picked up the phone to notify me and no response to this day.”
There are a lot of problems, Goren said.
The biggest problem is that some homeowners are in serious risk of losing their homes, if that hasn’t happened already. “If you can’t pay your mortgage or taxes and can’t sell your home — since most homes are in disrepair and you will lose money — then people will be losing their homes,” Goren said. “They are forcing people to wait, they are forcing people to elevate, they are forcing people to spend money upfront but they are not offering any understanding, explanations, or even have a good system of communication. The only way we know something is going on is by the chain of emails that we all forward to one another.”
State Sen. Gayle Slossberg said she’s frustrated too. She’s been working with residents, listening to their problems and trying to help, but there’s a lot of red tape. Speeding up the release of funds is one of the many issues she’s been tackling.
“The latest glitch is a federal law that says if you use federal dollars to repair a home you have to take into consideration the potential historic nature. If the house is over 50 years old, the application has to go through the State Historic Preservation Office.”
Slossberg said she’s spent time talking to the governor’s office trying to expedite this part of the process.
This week, Slossberg said she arranged a meeting with the governor’s office and the state and federal agencies involved to address the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds and to try to move the process along.
“Hopefully that will happen by the end of the week,” she said. “We need a streamlined process. People are out of their homes. The governor is very understanding and supportive.”
One local official pointed out that the CDBG-DR funds are coming from HUD but the program administration is being done completely but the Connecticut Department of Housing. So the cost estimates and the case management is at the state level. The state is also making the rules and developing the procedures within the parameters set by the HUD regulations. The five-year residency requirement, for example, is the state’s idea, not a HUD requirement.
Slossberg pointed out that there are several sources of funding available for storm victims, and they all have different requirements.
“It’s extremely complicated,” she said. “There are a lot of moving parts to this.”
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about government funding for storm victims on Milford’s shoreline and the people waiting for the funds. To read the second article in the series, click here.