Union Beach Residents Face Limited Options After Sandy
NJ Spotlight talks to Union Beach homeowners who can't afford to rebuild or remain.
In the self-described blue-collar borough of Union Beach, the frustrated pronouncement, “I’m still waiting for my money,” punctuates so many conversations that it's almost a refrain among homeowners who -- four months after Sandy -- have yet to receive the insurance checks that will help them cover critical home repairs or elevations or both.
Yet despite the prolonged uncertainty and displacement, they are the lucky ones.
Dozens of their neighbors in the Monmouth County town -- where half the population qualifies for low-income federal assistance -- have no insurance at all.
Union Beach is one of a handful of year-round Bayshore communities whose housing includes miniature bungalows, sometimes called “cottages,” that date to the beginning of the 20th century or earlier.
Some are occupied by descendants of the original owners or by seniors who bought and paid off the houses decades ago. On fixed incomes and with no mortgage to require insurance, some of these residents have opted to forego homeowner and flood policies.
For them, there is no check in the mail.
“When my husband and I bought this house in 1969, it had two bedrooms and a bathroom. We raised three kids here,” said Eileen Gubelman, a retired widow whose 37-by-36-foot cottage was one of 100 Union Beach homes demolished by the city this winter. Eighty more will come down before spring.
The cottage-count is only the beginning of Union Beach's catalog of losses.
Out of the 2,600 houses that make up the small boro (it only takes a few minutes to walk end to end), some 85 percent were flooded with at least two feet of water.
The boro also lost four firehouses and an ambulance squad. The K-8 school flooded and is still locked. And 14 police cars, four fire trucks, and three ambulances (fully reimbursable) were turned into scrap metal.
Gubelman is once again living with her adult children, but this time she rents a Cliffwood Beach apartment with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren.
She’s not sure what to do with her property, given that she has no money to rebuild and fears that a new house on old ground may conjure up memories of her late husband, who passed away last month. He lived just four months longer than her mother.
“Who’s going to give a 68-year-old woman a mortgage with no income except Social Security?” she asked.
If she does decide to rebuild -- possibly with a residential loan from the Small Business Administration -- she’ll have to raise her house at least two feet higher than the new Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) base flood elevation maps dictate, to comply with Union Beach law.
But satisfying the minimum height requirements could mean that Gubelman will run afoul of the borough’s height maximums, which top out at 35 feet.
Luckily, Union Beach’s emergency management coordinator says Gubelman and others in her position can safely disregard the maximum height restrictions if and when they elevate, as long as they stay within their former footprint.
That’s because town officials realize they’ll probably have to adjust the 35-foot maximum to account for revised FEMA flood requirements, which will likely raise houses to a greater height.
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