A promise that “a portion of the units will be available” to Sandy-affected seniors was removed from a press release announcing a newly controversial Belleville, N.J. senior center project, a county official confirmed to Salon.
A prior version of the May 29 project press release – still posted on the developer’s website – stated that, “As an added benefit, a portion of the units will be available to assist senior citizens affected by Hurricane Sandy.” In the final version, posted on the website of Essex County, that sentence – the only one mentioning the hurricane -- has been replaced with a different one: “Since the project is located in one of the nine counties most impacted by Sandy, the project may assist senior citizens affected by the storm.”
The Belleville senior center has brought a new wave of scrutiny to the Christie administration -- which already faced investigations over apparently retaliatory lane closures and allegedly tying Sandy cash to a development project – since a Jan. 28 Star-Ledger story. The paper wrote that Christie “helped channel $6 million in federal Hurricane Sandy recovery dollars” to building the senior center – providing a third of the project’s budget -- even though the town “was not particularly hard hit.” Reporter Matt Friedman noted that “statements from the governor and officials from Essex County and Belleville at the project’s unveiling barely mentioned storm recovery, focusing almost exclusively on how the 137-unit housing project would help keep Belleville’s seniors in town.”
Belleville Mayor Raymond Kimble and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo endorsed Christie at an event 13 days after the May 29 unveiling. "It's incredible," Fair Share Housing Center attorney Adam Gordon told Salon, that "getting projects done for political reasons extended to how Sandy funds are spent."
Essex County Public Information Officer Anthony Puglisi described the differently worded press release on the developer’s site as “an earlier version.” Asked why the prior language had been removed, he told Salon, “It was just changed, that’s all. Just different language. It says the same thing.” But, asked whether there was anything in the previously drafted sentence that was not true, Puglisi said, “You’d need to talk to the developers regarding the funding sources, the other fundraising sources that they received.” Representatives of Franklin Development Group, the Mayor of Belleville and Governor Christie did not respond to Thursday requests for comment.
Asked about the meaning of the original, drafted-and-deleted sentence in the release for that May 29 event, Essex County’s Puglisi told Salon it had meant “if you’re a victim of Hurricane Sandy, you can apply to reside there once the building is done.” Asked whether anything about the project would involve any particular preference towards or attention to those affected by Sandy, Puglisi repeatedly referred such questions to the developer, and noted that the funds provided by Essex County came from a fund devoted to creating affordable housing. Asked who had made the decision to change the line stating that “a portion of the units will be available” to Sandy-affected seniors, Puglisi told Salon, “Press releases go through heavy editing processes, so it was just changed as a matter of course.”
“It’s a reasonable question to know who edited that and why,” argued Fair Share’s Gordon. “It’s as if someone felt that even, you know, a mild mention of having some benefits to people impacted by Sandy was too much.” He charged that it was “not an accident” that Christie made no mention of Sandy in his speech at the unveiling or his quote in the day’s press release. “Someone probably told him, politically, that there were a lot of people in the town who didn’t want anybody else moving there,” said Gordon. Christie told those assembled at the unveiling, “you shouldn’t have to leave the place where you raised your children and lived your lives in order to be able to have affordable housing for yourself as you get older.”
The “impression he gave to people in Belleville,” argued Gordon, was “that in fact this is something that’s just for Belleville.” He noted that the Sandy-impacted area closest to Belleville was the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, “a very diverse community” from which he suggested some Belleville residents may have been particularly averse to welcoming an influx of Sandy-spurred newcomers.
Some local press stories published soon after the project’s unveiling suggest misgivings in Belleville about outsiders’ use of the senior center. County Executive DiVincenzo told the local Observer that although “the priority is going to be for [accepting] Belleville seniors, when you take money from various levels of government, you can’t stop people from outside Belleville from coming in and using the facility [if eligible].” The same month, Belleville resident Eleanor Strollo told the Belleville Times, “Many residents are fearful ‘our own’ will be neglected in being accommodated and that ‘others’ will take precedence. The governor made it clear that wouldn’t be the case, but it does remain to be seen.”
“Every time that we hear things like, you know, ‘this isn’t for people from this town,’” said Gordon, “in New Jersey, that usually has a racial undercurrent.” Gordon added that it would be “really wrong” to direct Sandy-focused funds to comparatively unscathed Belleville, and then take “pains to avoid mentioning” any way the facility could support people from harder-hit, more-diverse areas. “I think it’s really troubling,” Gordon told Salon, that “Christie used federal funds – and federal disaster relief funds – to play into that dynamic.” Asked by a FiOS1 News reporter at the groundbreaking why the senior center project, conceived years earlier, was finally getting off the ground, Mayor Kimble answered, “I think because of our rapport with the governor, and the county exec.”
As Salon has reported, Fair Share Housing Center is also among the groups questioning the Christie administration over data – obtained through a lawsuit – showing stark racial disparities in approvals and rejections of Sandy aid applications from New Jersey residents. “For a governor who says he governs with ‘the spirit of Sandy,’” Gordon told Salon, “he governs with the spirit of Sandy when it helps him politically.”