The state Department of Community Affairs is now running the program with help from another firm, ICF International of Virginia. ICF received a no-bid contract to complete the grant program, which runs through 2015, for $36.5 million.
Both Hammerman & Gainer and ICF were contractors in a similar $10-billion program that became notorious for mistakes and long delays in handing out funds in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. New Jersey officials said they had heard of the Louisiana woes before signing the contracts, but didn't consider them disqualifying. They said they selected Hammerman & Gainer because its proposal came in at $127 million less than the only other bid.
An ICF spokesman said the company "actually over-delivered" in its Katrina performance and that audits found no wrongdoing. Hammerman & Gainer did not respond to requests for comment.
In New Jersey, the Fair Share Housing Center, an affordable housing advocacy group, recently released a study showing that 80% of homeowners rejected by Hammerman & Gainer were found eligible for aid after they filed appeals. Center official Kevin Walsh said many of those applicants never found out why their original requests for aid were denied.
"It's just a complete unknown to most people who have dealt with the process," he said. "When you don't have any rules you have to make it up as you go along."
At a Capitol Hill hearing on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) blamed the Christie administration for problems like botched paperwork, lengthy delays and a lack of transparency. In a reference to Christie's criticism of federal rules, he said it "was time to stop finger-pointing and get the job done."
"People simply feel the major state programs are not being run fairly or competently," said Menendez, chairman of the Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development. At the hearing, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said his agency was investigating whether the program, which featured a botched Spanish-language website, unfairly denied access to minorities, and was pressing the state to make improvements.
In defending their work, Christie and other top officials in his administration say New Jersey's record is better than New York's when it comes to delivering aid to homeowners: One study by a housing group found that under a similar program in New York City, only 110 of nearly 20,000 applicants had received an award.
For the victims, that is little solace. Jeanine Gross of Port Monmouth, a medical office manager, waited in line at her town's hearing to see administration officials, clutching a sheaf of paperwork about her wrecked home.
"They give you no information at all. All they tell you is you're still on the waiting list," she said.
Without a grant, she added, she has come to believe she's "going to have to move away from here."