Sunday, September 21st, 2014
Mostly True
O'Donnell
Chris Christie "helped funnel $6 million in federal Hurricane Sandy money to a senior center in Belleville, N.J., a place that suffered no damage."

Lawrence O'Donnell on Tuesday, February 11th, 2014 in a segment on MSNBC's "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell"

Lawrence O'Donnell says Chris Christie steered $6 million in Sandy funds to New Jersey area that had 'no damage' from storm

MSNBC anchors continued their exhaustive coverage of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s no-good 2014 recently with a look at how he went to bat for new senior housing in a small town.

What’s so bad about that? O'Donnell suggested that Christie wasted Superstorm Standy relief money to help fund the project.

On his Feb. 11 show, O’Donnell opened with clips of Christie speaking to the Economic Club of Chicago, where Christie said he fought for Superstorm Sandy relief money "because every dollar that we’ve been shorted will have an impact on the lives of the people of my state. And as governor, your job is to fight for those people as hard as you can."

That’s when O’Donnell chimed in: "Now, of course, Christie knows that he’s talking to an audience that knows nothing about what he’s talking about. That is his specialty as a public speaker. ... He was talking to an audience that did not know that he helped funnel $6 million in federal Hurricane Sandy money to a senior center in Belleville, N.J., a place that suffered no damage."

PunditFact wanted to dig deeper into O’Donnell’s assertion.

Where did O’Donnell come up with that?

The claim is grounded, for the most part, in a Jan. 28 investigation by The Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark, N.J. The crux of the report: Christie personally pushed for hurricane relief money to build a senior housing project that had been in the works long before Superstorm Sandy in Belleville, a town in Essex County.

Belleville was "not particularly hard hit," the newspaper reported, with some flooding, downed trees and some week-long power outages. But Essex County was one of nine counties deemed most impacted by the storm by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

As part of $1.8 billion in various federal disaster relief grants, Christie directed $6 million to the senior housing project.

Christie played a prominent role during a May 2013 groundbreaking ceremony for the new housing complex, which will cost $18 million overall (the day after he famously traversed the Jersey Shore with President Barack Obama). Town mayor Raymond Kimble praised Christie for committing to the facility’s construction, saying it will help seniors stay in their hometown instead of spending their final years somewhere new. (Here’s a video.) Christie echoed those remarks as he described how he kept in constant contact with various state and local officials about the project (video):

"This project was so worthy, and to be honest, so overdue that I felt like there was no time to wait. We needed to do this and do it quickly," Christie said.

Two weeks later, Kimble, a Democrat, endorsed Christie as the governor faced re-election.

The coverage from that day, and the speeches, included little mention of a connection to Superstorm Sandy, or that the housing was needed as part of the storm response.

What was the damage?

It’s too far to say Belleville suffered "no damage." Most if not all of New Jersey felt something, even if it wasn’t as severely pummeled as the Jersey Shore. All 21 counties were declared major disaster areas.

A Rutgers University study found that Belleville ranked 255th out of 553 municipalities in what researchers called the Sandy Community Hardship Index. The index measures the residential, commercial and municipal damage to each New Jersey town -- with No. 1 being the hardest hit.

Kimble, Belleville’s mayor, told the Star-Ledger he did not know of any residents who were displaced by the storm, and experts told us there are no good numbers for displaced residents for the state overall.

About 3 percent of Belleville’s households, or 43, had major or severe damage from the storm, whereas anywhere from 10 to 113 percent of households in various parts of Toms River, N.J., suffered major or severe damage, according to New Jersey’s action plan for a Community Development Block Grant for disaster relief.

The Star-Ledger more recently published another investigation into Sandy spending, this time finding nearly one-third of the $160 million pot designated for new affordable housing projects after the storm went to Essex and Middlesex counties, which were not as affected as coastal communities.

There’s more to the story, says Team Christie

Let’s review the facts that aren’t up for disagreement: The senior facility is slated for $6 million in Sandy relief funds, and Christie made sure the senior center got the money.

There is also little debate that Belleview did not suffer the brunt of the storm, though describing it as "no damage" as O’Donnell did is an overstatement.

What Christie’s team disputes is the suggestion that the Belleview senior housing project is not connected to Superstorm Sandy.

Christie’s press office, both in the Star-Ledger story and in an email to PunditFact, said the 137-unit housing project served a need for affordable rental housing for people displaced by the storm. A group of about 35 housing projects approved for disaster grant funding, including the Belleville facility, "were awarded objectively and helped expand affordable housing in Sandy-affected counties to give impacted renters permanent housing options as close to their homes as possible," said spokesman Colin Reed.

Put more simply, Reed said the project will serve a need of people in Essex County and elsewhere who were affected by the storm. An executive at the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency has told reporters the goal was to choose "shovel-ready projects."

But neither Christie nor other local officeholders at the groundbreaking mentioned that purpose (though a county press release did include a passing mention about housing essentially being available to Sandy survivors). Instead, the officials talked about how the project will allow Belleville seniors to stay in Belleville.

"Seniors shouldn’t have to leave the place where they raised their family to find affordable housing," Christie said.

Adam Gordon, a staff attorney for the New Jersey-based Fair Share Housing Center, said the idea that residents from harder-hit areas would uproot their lives and move into a Belleville senior housing complex about an hour away from coastal communities is not really credible.

"You shouldn’t be able to use ‘shovel ready’ as an excuse for things that are not located in, or really near, the areas that are hit the hardest," Goodman said, "or places that are basically saying ‘we’re marketing this to seniors in our town.’ "

We could not reach a spokesman for O’Donnell’s show.

Our ruling

O’Donnell said Chris Christie "helped funnel $6 million in federal Hurricane Sandy money to a senior center in Belleville, N.J., a place that suffered no damage."

O’Donnell is right that Christie helped steer $6 million in Sandy money to a senior center. And he’s right that Belleville fared much better than other places in New Jersey, though to say "no damage" is an exaggeration.

Because of that caveat, we rate this claim Mostly True.