Gov. Chris Christie's administration is again facing questions about how Sandy aid was distributed in New Jersey after it was revealed $4.8 million in relief funds went to help build an apartment tower in New Brunswick, a town that saw relatively little storm damage.
New Jersey's Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency approved the disbursement as part of the state's Fund for Rebuilding Multifamily Housing. The program is intended to speed the construction of new affordable housing in communities ravaged by the storm.
But New Brunswick lost relatively little of its housing stock when Sandy stormed through the state, and a Rutgers University study ranked New Brunswick 188th on a list of communities that suffered the most hardship due to Sandy.
"They're not spending the money on the people that they're supposed to be spending," said Doris Narkum, a storm victim whose family lost their house on the Jersey Shore.
Anthony Marchetta, executive director of the housing and mortgage agency, defended using Sandy relief funds to help build the New Brunswick apartment tower. Although New Brunswick itself was not heavily damaged by Sandy, Marchetta stressed the municipality exists in Middlesex County, one of the nine counties declared a disaster area after the storm.
"We're always in short supply of affordable housing in New Jersey," Marchetta said. "But those impacted counties have been further aggravated."
The New Brunswick project is one of 36 developments intended to increase the state's stock of affordable housing in the wake of Sandy. In all, Marchetta said the state has committed $157 million, which is expected to generate 2,369 affordable housing units.
As for the location of those units, Marchetta said a lot of that depends on where developers propose to locate their projects.
"We made an announcement to the development community that if you have any projects in those nine counties that will generate affordable housing, bring them on."
Forty-eight of the 238 apartments in the New Brunswick apartment tower will be classified as affordable housing.
The developer, a firm called Boraie, boasts the building will have 8,000 square feet of retail space, a parking deck and a fitness center.
Adam Gordon, a lawyer for the nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center, said most of the 36 development projects awarded through the Fund for Rebuilding Multifamily Housing appear to directly benefit communities heavily damaged by Sandy, but the New Brunswick tower appears to be more questionable.
"I just don't think building anywhere in any of the nine counties is equal, especially when you have a project that doesn't seem to have any connection to Sandy," Gordon said.
He has also criticized a senior housing development in Belleville, which won millions in Sandy relief funds. Belleville was not hit particularly hard by Sandy; it ranked 254th on the list of New Jersey communities suffering hardships after Sandy.
Despite the relatively low level of need, the HMFA approved $6 million to help the developer build 137 affordable senior housing units.
At a ceremonial groundbreaking in May, Christie did not mention how the senior center would benefit Sandy victims, but he did say he considered the project a priority for the seniors of Belleville and spoke about how he personally urged his appointed officials on the phone to approve the financial assistance.
"We saw the governor made remarks that basically directed his top cabinet officials to make sure this development got money. That was really troubling," Gordon said.
After the Sandy aid was approved, Belleville Mayor Raymond Kimble, a Democrat, crossed party lines to endorse Christie's re-election bid. Kimble did not respond to the I-Team's request for comment.
Another endorsement secured by Christie came from former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal. He has invested with Boraie on other real estate projects.
Five months after the HMFA approved the Boraie application for Sandy funds, O'Neal appeared in a commercial endorsing Christie.
Earlier this month, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer said Christie's lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, pulled her aside last year and told her Sandy recovery funds -- from a program separate from the multifamily housing funds -- would be freed up for her city if she signed off on a certain real estate development. Guadagno has denied that this conversation took place.
Representatives for O'Neal did not respond to the I-Team's request for comment. Calls to Boraie Development were not returned. It is unclear if O'Neal has invested directly in the New Brunswick apartment tower.
A spokesperson for Christie did not respond to inquiries about the political endorsements from O'Neal or Kimble.