The city has acquired 19 properties through its flood buyout initiative called the Northside Buyback Program in a neighborhood that was devastated by hurricane Irene five years ago, according to municipal records.
$1.84 million has been spent in acquiring the 19 properties. 13 additional properties are under review to begin the acquisition process. And another 16 are on the list to be purchased, according to a memorandum from economic director Ruben Gomez released by the city in response to a records request.
The city paid on average $97,000 for a property.
In all, Gomez listed 48 properties being purchased through the two buyout programs. He did not respond to a call for comment for this story.
Pastor James Staton expressed optimism at the recent purchases. He lamented the way the program was run from the very beginning. He said residents in the neighborhood were not informed about the buyout program.
“The people shouldn’t have to be going through this because somebody is sitting there playing with paperwork,” said Staton. “It’s a travesty.” He said there are people in the area that continue to pay taxes on the uninhabitable homes.
The program was initially run out of the Community Development Department under the watch of management specialist Joyce Gregory-Hunt. The previous director of that department Lanisha Makle has been criticized over the way the buyout program was run.
The city last year moved the program to the Economic Development Department. Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large, said the move did well to push along the program.
The city received three grants totaling $7.8 million for the buyout program. There’s a $4.32 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) award, a $2.1 million Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR), and a $1.4 million state Green Acres grant.
Both the FEMA and the CDBG grants expire in three months. The expiration date for both grants are December 31st, 2016. The city has previously received an extension on the FEMA grant.
“One of the things about deadlines is that they seem to be sufficient motivators to get things done,” said Morris. He said it will motivate those responsible to conclude the program in a timely manner.
Morris said the city may have to seek extensions to ensure it does not lose any of the funds. It’s not clear whether the city has filed any extension requests.
Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres did not respond to a call for comment.
When asked if he is optimistic about the city concluding the program in the next three months, Morris remarked: “I have to remain optimistic. What’s the alternative?”
The city last month awarded a $40,000 contract to Clifton-based attorney Joseph Wenzel in connection with the buyout program. It also awarded a second $40,000 contract to Point Pleasant-based Hogan Appraisal, according to city records.
The $7.8 million is not only to purchase the properties, but also for demolition, project management, and debris removal, and restoration of the site as a potential green space. The city also used a portion of the money to assist some of the renters to relocate elsewhere.
Staton, a former councilman for the 1st Ward, where the buyout is occurring, said the vacant structures in the neighborhood have been turned into havens for criminals and drug addicts damaging quality of life in the area.
The delays in the past couple of years have resulted from issues such as who handles the environmental remediation costs at some of the properties, said Morris. And whether the city can even purchase a contaminated property.
Prior to that much of the blame for delays fell on former mayor Jeffery Jones’ administration.
“I’m looking at these families and the red tape. People are still down and out,” said Staton.