Victims of Hurricane Ida 2021 Elizabeth NJ request housing assistance

Some of Elizabeth’s hundreds of tenants displaced by Tropical Storm Ida – who still lack stable, permanent housing six months after the disaster – staged a rally on Monday to pressure local, state and federal agencies to ‘they meet with them and come up with a plan to find them affordable housing.

Ida devastated the Oakwood Plaza public housing complex, displacing nearly 600 residents and killing four, leaving them without most of their belongings and a difficult search for a new apartment in a fiercely competitive housing market.

Deadlines are looming for temporary solutions. Many residents are being asked to move out of publicly funded hotels, while others are unsure how long their families will stay in the apartments the building’s owner, Community Investment Strategies, has temporarily placed them in.

Some expressed frustration and felt like they weren’t getting answers.

So a dozen community activists, Ida victims and families of Oakwood Plaza residents rested on the concrete steps of Elizabeth City Hall or sat on blue folding chairs on Monday. keen to ask for help. Activists taped two small billboards to the railings, covered in black capital letters: “Ida flood victims want permanent housing.

Sonora Billups pauses as she speaks to NorthJersey.com about her housing situation since Tropical Storm Ida.  Monday, February 21, 2022

A small white sign with “Building Closed” written in green ink blocked the door – it was President’s Day. But City Hall was just the first stop – they were heading to the home of Elizabeth Mayor Christian Bollwage to deliver a petition signed by nearly 100 displaced Oakwood Plaza residents.

“Right now he can go home and live comfortably and not have to worry about much,” said Salaam Ismial, a local activist and director of the National United Youth Council, into a megaphone. “And what will become of all these people? They went through Thanksgiving in hotels, they went through Christmas in hotels, they went through New Years in hotels.

The listed petition three requests:

  • “Grant permanent Section 8 vouchers to all displaced residents who want one
  • Launch a comprehensive survey of the operation, practice and treatment of CIS strategies for residents of Oakwood Plaza Apartments
  • HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge came to Elizabeth to meet with Oakwood Plaza tenants to hear their concerns”

“I am in a desperate situation”

Lataiyyah Washington, 36, wants a Section 8 voucher for herself and her two sons. She said she can’t find an apartment she can afford without one.

After living in the Embassy Suites for five months, with the stay covered by the City of Elizabeth, she was evicted Feb. 4, a week after she said she first received calls from the city to leave during a winter storm that brought 8 inches of snow.

“It was embarrassing, I was crying because I had nowhere to go, me and my kids, so I just go house to house,” Washington said. “Some days I stay at my mom’s house and some days I stay at a friend’s house.”

The story continues after the photo gallery

The mayor’s office did not return a request for comment, but Ruby Contreras, communications specialist for the City of Elizabeth, told NorthJersey.com last month: “If tenants turn down multiple moving opportunities, they are informed that the hotel voucher will cease.

By the end of January, the city had paid for 252 Ida survivors in hotels.

Washington said CIS tried to place her and her two children in a one-bedroom apartment in New Brunswick – too small for the size of her family – and an apartment in South Jersey.

“It was two hours in Woolwich from where my kids go to school and my baby goes to the Beth Israel doctor in Newark,” Washington said. “The search for a new place was very difficult. It’s very difficult.”

Sonora Billups, 60, waited four years to move into Oakwood Plaza apartments. She was about to renew her lease after a year, then Ida knocked. She lost everything: her furniture, her belongings, her documents.

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Then after five months, the city stopped paying for his hotel room.

“It was all of a sudden. My blood pressure went up and I said, ‘I need more time,'” Billups said.

So she collected FEMA funds and survivor benefits she received after her husband died the year before after suffering a kidney injury. diseases.

She paid nearly $500 for four extra nights at the hotel, then her daughter helped her find an AirBnb, which cost $900 for 10 days. She now has a month-to-month lease in East Orange in a third-floor attic.

“They might say boom, you have to go, and that’s it,” Billups said. “I’m in a desperate situation and I don’t know what to do.”

Three months ago, CIS temporarily placed Vanessa Wilkerson and her 77-year-old mother in a single room at Rahway, one room less than at Oakwood Plaza. Wilkerson sleeps on the recliner or sofa in the living room, while his mother uses the bedroom.

Cars are looted after flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida at the Oakwood Plaza Apartments complex in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Wilkerson serves as his mother’s sole caretaker while also working at Wakefern Food Corporation.

“We can’t afford anywhere else,” Wilkerson said. “It’s frustrating, you don’t know from one day to the next, if you go back there, you don’t hear anyone. We’ve been traumatized by the storm, but where else could we afford but Oakwood Plaza?

CIS Management, owner of Oakwood Plaza, plans to begin relocating residents within the next six to 12 months, depending on how long the remediation takes, spokeswoman Deana Gunn said.

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“CIS management has been aggressive in its response to the unprecedented disaster in our community of Elizabeth,” Gunn said. “CIS immediately made all vacant apartments available to Ida-affected residents across our New Jersey portfolio. These residents were given priority on all waiting lists, and CIS has housed over 100 families through this process. We do not control the location of vacant apartments, but we remain committed to making housing resources available wherever they are.

Gunn said the Housing Authority of Elizabeth provided 130 Section 8 vouchers to residents.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development did not return a request for comment on Monday, but said in late January that 44 families with vouchers had found homes, while 69 were still looking for apartments. Another 86 families were temporarily living in other HUD-subsidized private apartments.

One last push

After their gathering at City Hall, those present got into half a dozen cars, driving 10 minutes to the mayor’s house on a quiet, narrow street.

They stood on the sidewalk across the road, looking at the house hesitantly. “Is anyone even home?” someone asked. Ismial sat in the back of a van and neatly wrote “Mayor Christian Bollwage From the people” with a Sharpie on the front of a yellow business envelope and slipped the petition inside.

Salaam Ismial leaves a petition with the mayor of Elizabeth, at J. Christian Bollwage.  The petition calls for a solution to the fact that hundreds of residents have no permanent housing six months after Tropical Storm Ida.  Monday, February 21, 2022

The group slowly approached the house, then formed a circle and joined their elbows in prayer.

“We hope this will be a last ditch effort… to help people looking for an opportunity to find a home,” Ismial said.

“Amen,” echoed the band.

Ismial walked up the steps to the front door with Hassanah Smith-Thomas, the cousin of Shakia Garrett, who died during Ida while trying to help the residents of Oakwood Plaza escape.

He rang the doorbell and waited.

“He’s probably watching us on camera,” Ismial said, waving the envelope at the doorbell. He turned to the group still waiting on the sidewalk. “Where should I put it? he asked hesitantly.

“On the doorknob!” someone shouted.

He rolled up the folder like a treasure map and placed it carefully in the doorknob. The group started clapping and Ismial raised two fists.

“It’s for Shakia,” Smith-Thomas said.

Ashley Balcerzak is a journalist who covers affordable housing and its intersection with how we live in New Jersey. For unlimited access to his work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @abalcerzak

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