Plagued by construction delays, ReBuild NC has spent $10.6 million to house Hurricane Matthew survivors in motels, rent storage units

A house in Wayne County whose homeowner has been displaced by Hurricane Matthew since the storm hit in 2016. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

This story has been corrected to reflect the first TRA payment was in August 2019, not January 2020.

ReBuild NC has spent $10.64 million on motels, moving and storage unit expenses in three years for displaced Hurricane Matthew survivors, as construction and administrative delays have kept people from returning to their homes.

The figures were included in Temporary Relocation Assistance (TRA) data provided by ReBuild NC, also known as the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency. The data also includes expenses for apartment leases and stipends for friends and family of Hurricane Matthew survivors who privately house them.

As part of an ongoing investigative series, Policy Watch reported earlier this month that ReBuild NC had been unable to provide detailed expenditure documents as requested under public records law. The agency then agreed to send totals, but without supporting documentation.

In providing the new information, a ReBuild NC spokesperson noted that TRA funds come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, although this type of assistance is not a HUD requirement. “It is an additional benefit that NCORR decided to provide to make the recovery process easier, especially for those applicants who have no other housing options during the construction process. Without this benefit, many of our applicants would not be able to participate in the program,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Under the TRA program, once construction begins on a home, ReBuild NC pays to move and house low-income hurricane survivors, as well as covering the cost of renting mobile storage units.

ReBuild NC incurred its first TRA expenses in August 2019. Since then, ReBuild NC has paid $6.5 million in motel bills, $1.7 million to PODS Enterprises, and $70,000 to 1-800-PACK-RAT for mobile storage units, as well as other expenses.

The relocation is supposed to be temporary — usually up to six months — but because of ReBuild NC’s mismanagement of the program, some hurricane survivors have lived in motels for more than two years. This includes the Williams family, who have been stuck in one room without a kitchen for 862 days.

Another homeowner, who asked not to be named for fear that work on their home would be delayed, told Policy Watch they have been in a motel since early 2020. However, the motel does not have a kitchen and the person receives food stamps, which don’t cover restaurant meals. As a result, it has been difficult for them to afford food, they said.

Construction delays have long plagued the program. Although some lag time can be attributed to the pandemic and supply chain issues, that does not explain all of the inefficiencies. In other instances, homeowners have been moved from livable, if damaged houses with the expectation construction would begin immediately. Instead, months, even years pass.

Several contractors have told Policy Watch that they have completed the work but have not been paid by ReBuild NC. Multiple contractors told Policy Watch that it can take months to get approval for change orders; these occur when contractors uncover additional work that needs done and that was beyond the estimate cost of repairs, such as lead paint or asbestos abatement.

According to state data that had been sent by ReBuild NC to the governor’s office and obtained by Policy Watch, 740 homes are listed as complete as of July 11. In early May that figure was 717.

The average cost per house — including new construction and rehabs — is $136,882, according to state cost estimate and invoicing data obtained by Policy Watch. Depending on the type of home, the cost of a motel stay could exceed that of new construction or repairs.

The recent TRA figures don’t capture the full extent of displaced homeowners. Hurricane survivors whose income is too high must pay for their own relocation expenses. However, several homeowners, such as the Dillahunt family, have told Policy Watch their income was miscalculated and they were in effect, homeless. The Zerby family didn’t qualify for TRA and lived in a travel trailer in a church parking lot for more than a year.

ReBuild NC operates its homeowner disaster recovery program using an eight-step process. In the first five steps, the process is primarily administrative: determining an applicant’s eligibility and benefit amounts, as well as inspecting the home.

In Step 6, ReBuild NC puts a project out for bid, and an eligible household can then move using TRA assistance. (If repairs are minor, a homeowner can remain in the house.) There are 819 households in Step 6, according to an eight-step status report dated July 11.

Construction begins in Step 7, the current status for 173 households. Another 740 are in Step 8.

Hurricane Matthew devastated eastern North Carolina in October 2016. HUD subsequently allotted North Carolina a $236 million grant for a disaster relief homeowner recovery program related to the storm. However, the recovery program, initially run by the state Department of Public Safety and the Department of Commerce was slow to launch, and cited by HUD as a “slow spender,” jeopardizing the grant.

The state legislature created the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency in late 2018; Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Laura Hogshead as ReBuild NC’s director; she has been in charge since early 2019. Ivan Duncan is the chief program delivery officer, responsible for dealing with contractors.

Last week, state House and Senate leadership announced the formation of a 12-member oversight committee to investigate the delays and problems with the program. the first meeting has not been scheduled.

 

From Ivan Duncan’s LinkedIn page: Duncan is the chief program delivery officer at ReBuild NC. He was commenting on a United Nations post to LinkedIn about disaster relief. Multiple contractors and homeowners have complained that he is responsible for many of ReBuild’s problems. The agency has declined to make Duncan available to Policy Watch for an interview.

A key to less financial stress? Medicaid expansion.

Image: Adobe Stock

North Carolina lawmakers returning to Raleigh on Tuesday are not expected to cast any decisive votes. But they will be greeted by advocates for Medicaid expansion, hoping to move lawmakers closer to a decision to finally close the coverage gap.

Tuesday’s vigil comes on the heels of new and promising research by Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine.

According to VCU, the first-of-its kind study analyzes the changes in subjective financial distress for a population of newly eligible Medicaid enrollees both before and then after enrollment.

Here’s more from VCU’s Olivia Trani:

“Since Virginia’s expansion of Medicaid in 2019, health insurance coverage has been extended to more than 500,000 adults,” said Hannah Shadowen, an M.D.-Ph.D. student within the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy and lead author of the new study. “Through this research, we are getting a closer look into how Medicaid expansion could be creating positive financial changes and improving equity for low-income families.”

The research team conducted a baseline survey of individuals newly eligible for Medicaid to understand their health care experience and financial situation in the year prior to enrolling. Follow-up surveys were then sent more than 18 months after enrollment. The team collected over 3,000 responses in total.

Using data from the surveys, the researchers examined how financial concerns about medical and nonmedical needs changed for beneficiaries one year after enrollment. This included worries related to paying for housing, food, monthly bills, credit card and loan payments and health care.

“Most studies that look into the financial implications of Medicaid expansion concentrate on health care affordability or catastrophic financial events like bankruptcy. In this research, we wanted to see whether enrolling in the program also impacts a person’s ability to pay household expenses like housing and food,” said Barnes, a co-author of the study.

The research team’s analysis showed that, after 12 months of Medicaid enrollment, enrollees were 33.7% less likely to be concerned about normal health care costs and 23.8% less likely to be concerned about catastrophic health care costs compared with the year before. The enrolled respondents also reported having less trouble paying medical bills and paying off medical debt over time.

Additionally, researchers found that enrolled individuals showed reduced concerns about general expenses not associated with health care. These findings were consistent with previous studies that have shown the positive impacts of Medicaid expansion on nonmedical costs.

Additionally, researchers found that enrolled individuals showed reduced concerns about general expenses not associated with health care. These findings were consistent with previous studies that have shown the positive impacts of Medicaid expansion on nonmedical costs.

Medicaid expansion would benefit more that 600, 000 uninsured North Carolinians and bring more than $1.5 billion in new federal funding to the state.

Read more about VCU’s research here. Tuesday’s vigil to pass Medicaid expansion will be held at 10:00 a.m. in front of the General Assembly (16 W. Jones Street, Raleigh) and will be live streamed here.

Legislative subcommittee to investigate ReBuild NC’s mismanagement of Hurricane Matthew recovery program

 

Damaged in Hurricane Matthew in 2016, these houses are under construction or are being rehabbed as part of ReBuild NC’s disaster relief program. The homeowners have been displaced for as long as two and a half years, living in motels, with relatives or in dilapidated houses, while construction is delayed. (Photos: Lisa Sorg)

A 12-member legislative subcommittee will investigate the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency’s handling of a Hurricane Matthew disaster relief program that has left thousands of people displaced, living in motels, with relatives, or in dilapidated houses for years. NCORR is familiarly known as ReBuild NC.

This week House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Pro Tempore Phil Berger established the Subcommittee on Hurricane Response and Recovery. Its co-chairs are Rep. John Bell, a Republican representing Wayne, Johnston and Greene counties; and fellow Republican Sen. Brent Jackson, whose district includes Duplin, Johnston and Sampson counties.

ReBuild NC received $236 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Hurricane Matthew homeowner recovery. Initially, the Division of Emergency Management ran the program under then-director Mike Sprayberry. However, HUD criticized the division for the slow rollout of funding.

In response, in late 2018 the legislature created the NC Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which is under the Department of Public Safety. Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Laura Hogshead as chief operating officer to get the program on track. She hired Ivan Duncan as chief program delivery officer, who held a similar position in New York State after Hurricane Sandy.

Laura Hogshead, director and chief operating officer of the ReBuild NC program. (Photo: NCORR)

However, under Hogshead’s and Duncan’s leadership, ReBuild NC has continued to founder. Since May, Policy Watch has published a series of investigative stories and homeowner interviews uncovering the extent of ReBuild NC’s mismanagement: arbitrary and preferential treatment to some construction companies, an atmosphere of secrecy, high turnover of case managers, lack of communication with displaced homeowners, as well as exorbitant expenditures on motel rooms and mobile storage units for those households.

As a result of Policy Watch’s reporting, Gov. Roy Cooper in late June ordered ReBuild NC and the Department of Public Safety “to undergo a thorough review of all areas where the process can be streamlined and customer service improved. They have identified a robust plan of action to get people back into their homes faster. The governor expects that NCORR will focus on delivering results faster while staying in close touch with those being assisted.”

Ivan Duncan, chief program delivery officer of ReBuild NC (Photo: LinkedIn)

Nonetheless, in the past month, Policy Watch has continued to hear from displaced homeowners who are desperate for help. All of them have told Policy Watch they get no answers from ReBuild NC about the progress on their homes. Several contractors have also left the program, further delaying construction.

The homeowners also said their case managers instruct them to communicate only by phone, not via email. Not only does this practice leave no paper trail for accountability purposes, it also prevents case managers from having a comprehensive history of a homeowner’s issues. In many instances, homeowners said they had to rehash their entire history with the program — even providing redundant documentation — to new case managers.

Hurricane Matthew disaster relief is not the only program under ReBuild NC and the Department of Public Safety to be scrutinized.  In April, State Auditor Beth Wood blasted the agency’s handling of Hurricane Florence recovery money.

In response to the announcement of the subcommittee, NCORR issued a statement:

“Since beginning its work in early 2019, NCORR’s top priority has been to get hurricane survivors back into their homes as quickly as possible, while supporting the overall recovery of storm-impacted communities. NCORR has been working closely with General Assembly members and staff to increase understanding of its progress and operations. We look forward to sharing additional information about program changes underway that are improving and expediting the recovery process for the people we serve.”

In addition to the co-chairs, many of the subcommittee’s members represent constituents in eastern North Carolina, which was devastated by the historic hurricane in October 2016. The first meeting has not yet been announced.

Senate                                                                                     House

Danny Britt (R-Columbus, Robeson)                                    Brenden Jones (R-Columbus, Robeson)
Jim Perry (R-Lenoir, Wayne)                                                  Mark Pless (R-Haywood, Madison, Yancey)
Steve Jarvis (R-Davidson, Montgomery)                              Sarah Stevens (R-Alleghany, Surry, Wilkes)
Kirk deViere (D-Cumberland)                                                 Charles Graham (D-Robeson)
Joyce Waddell (D-Mecklenburg)                                            Shelly Willingham (D-Edgecombe, Martin)

Comparing NC’s teacher pay with Alabama’s, fair elections at risk, and two takes on privacy: The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

Click here for the latest podcast interviews and commentaries with Rob Schofield.

11. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

“Privacy” concerns, “government overreach” take center stage in the final days of NC’s legislative session

In the waning hours of the 2022 summer legislative session, two of North Carolina’s most conservative House members took to the floor to speak out against government overreach.

“We should not have a government tracking people,” said Rep. Keith Kidwell, the House deputy majority whip.

The Beaufort County Republican was not addressing privacy concerns that have been raised since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, ending the constitutional right to an abortion.

Rather Kidwell was angry about a provision tucked inside Senate Bill 201, legislation that would make a number of changes to North Carolina’s motor vehicle and transportation laws.

The objectionable section would allow the state Department of Transportation to enter into agreements with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation for the placement and use of automatic license plate reader systems within land or right-of-way owned by the DOT as part of a pilot program.

The cameras provide real-time data for law enforcement and could be useful in the case of a stolen vehicle or an Amber alert.

But Rep. Kidwell was unwavering.

“Now, I’ve had someone write to me and say we do not have an expectation of privacy once we’re outside of our home. Well, that may be true, but I do think we have an expectation of privacy that our government should not track us every place we go.

Then I hear, ‘You don’t trust your government?’ No. I don’t to be quite honest with you,” Kidwell answered. “That’s one of the main reasons I’m here. I don’t trust my government.”

Kidwell then directed the House to read the Constitution.

“Pull up that Fourth Amendment and read it and see if you don’t agree this is a blatant violation of that right – the right to privacy.”

Tracking political opponents, dissidents

Rep. Larry Pittman (R- Cabarrus Co.) joined in Kidwell’s opposition, calling the pilot program ‘reprehensible.’

Rep. Pittman

“We hope and pray we never have government leaders in this state who want to keep tabs on political opponents, but this system would allow that,” Pittman warned. “I am not gonna sit still for that as long as I am here.”

Pittman said while cell phones can provide tracking data and one’s location, that handheld technology could easily be left at home, whereas the license plate could not legally be removed from one’s car.

“If there becomes a totalitarian government in this nation, this state, you should not be putting in a system by which they can track political opponents wherever they go.

I know the benefits of it. Oh, we can catch kidnappers, we catch bank robbers. You can also catch dissidents,” Pittman warned his colleagues.

Fifteen Republicans joined with Pittman and Kidwell in rejecting Thursday’s version of the bill. A rare 55-55 vote sent SB 201 off the floor and back to a group of conferees.

‘This is America in 2022?’

In the upper chamber, state Senator Natasha Marcus was also thinking about privacy last week in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dobbs.

“It pains me to think my daughters or any body’s daughters might face a problem pregnancy, an unwanted pregnancy, a not viable pregnancy and not be able to get the healthcare they need in America,” said Marcus in an interview with Policy Watch.

“This is America in 2022? That we are going to have forced birth?”

The Mecklenburg County Democrat said it is stunning to think we are now in a place where we are not going to trust women to make the very personal choice that is best for them and their families in consultation with their doctors.

“Instead, we are going to have politicians almost literally in the exam room.”

She said this is a terrifying prospect for women.

“For now, abortion is still legal in North Carolina. We cannot slide backwards or allow the government to block people from making our own decisions about such deeply personal matters,”  Sen. Marcus said.

Marcus sponsored a bill this session that would codify Roe and Casey protections.

Under that proposed legislation, the state would be prohibited from imposing any undue burden on the ability of a woman to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability.

Marcus and other progressives believe the measure is essential as Republican-controlled states quickly begin to ban or severely restrict  abortion access.

Another unsettled issue being debated is whether women might be punished for traveling out of state to get an abortion.

Senate Bill 888 was sent to the Rules committee in late May. It was never given another hearing.

A different ending in the House

But what of Senate Bill 201, the transportation bill that raised concerns because the pilot license plate readers might track motorists?

Reps. Kidwell and Pittman won their push for privacy.

The 13-page bill became a 12-page bill in a matter of hours; the section was removed entirely.

The House passed the conference committee substitute for SB 201 unanimously last Friday.