UNION COUNTY, NJ — Although state assemblywoman Linden Stender admitted last week her husband received help from Coastal Habitat for Humanity in tearing down the close to half-million shore home in his name, questions continue to surface about her involvement.
Coastal Habitat for Humanity explained in a statement last week how they initially came to help Richard Stender after Superstorm Sandy, but the non-profit made it clear they had no intention of becoming involved with the rebuilding of the Stender’s proposed two-story, five bedroom shore home in Manasquan.
The non-profit said they quickly withdrew from the project last August after a meeting with the couple to go over architectural plans for a rebuild that far exceeded the organization’s standards.
“At that time Coastal Habitat for Humanity refused to allow itself to be taken advantage of,” said Maureen Mulligan, Executive Director of the non-profit in a statement, pointing out the architectural plans “far exceeded the organization’s standards to build simple, decent, affordable housing.”
The non-profit said they would not discuss the matter further due to “potential litigation.”
The state attorney general is now investigating the dispute between Stender’s husband Richard and the non-profit that claims the Stender’s tried to take advantage of it in order to build what the assemblywoman called her “dream home.”
The assemblywoman has maintained the Manasquan home is the primary residence of her husband but she resides in Scotch Plains with her mother.
State law requires that elected assembly members live in the district they represent, which in Stender’s case is the 22nd legislative district. This district includes the Union County towns of Rahway, Clark, Linden, Fanwood, Scotch Plains, Plainfield and Winfield. It also includes towns in Middlesex and Somerset counties.
To date the only statement the assemblywoman has made was brief and did not go into details about what transpired with Coastal Habitat for Humanity.
“Like many others, our family suffered significant losses as a result of hurricane Sandy,” Stender said last week in a statement, adding that “an application was made to Coastal Habitat for Humanity to assist in the rebuilding. There are outstanding issues which are the subject of continued efforts to resolve.”
According to the statement explaining the non-profit’s involvement with the Manasquan flood-damaged home, Richard Stender initially applied to Coastal Habitat for Humanity for help in demolishing the 640-square-foot house he paid $465,000 for in 2008.
FEMA and Richard Stender’s insurance company, the non-profit pointed out, had already determined the shore home sustained more than 51 percent damage as a result of floodwaters from Superstorm Sandy. This qualified him for help because he said the Manasquan home was his primary residence.
As a result Coastal Habitat for Humanity said they began the process they follow with all applicants unable to get normal financing, which included submitting financial statements proving Stender’s annual income did not exceed Monmouth County’s median income of $84,526.
Although prior to Sandy the non-profit’s maximum income limit was set at 30 to 40 percent of the median income of $84,526, that changed after the storm to include homeowners making 80 percent of that number.
In question is whether Richard Stender reported his actual income to the non-profit as a married couple, which remains at issue. However, according to the assemblywoman’s legislative disclosure forms, jointly the couple was making close to $100,000 in 2012 and 2013, higher than the Monmouth County median income when Superstorm Sandy occurred.
At the time the assemblywoman reported she made $49,000 from her elected assembly position, along with an additional amount totaling less than $10,000 from a company in Fanwood called Medifict and the Scotch Plains Fanwood YMCA.
Richard Stender, on the other hand, earned at least $50,000 from his printing business, she reported.
While the assemblywoman initially stressed the Manasquan shore home was owned by her husband and not her, public records available online indicated she co-signed a $35,000 mortgage with her husband in 2011 that was paid off in 2014. This contradicts what the assemblywoman said about having no financial involvement with the shore home.
Although the Stender’s have remained tight-lipped about what transpired with Coastal Habitat, the non-profit explained what transpired and who was involved.
“The initial phase was demolition of the damage structure,” the non-profit said in a statement, explaining from that point a demolition plan and budgets were developed with Richard Stender’s cooperation. After that a demolition permit was obtained and a subcontractor hired to tear down the flood damaged bungalow for $11,000.
“Mr. Stender signed a Promissory note to repay coastal Habitat for Humanity for the cost of demolition,” the non-profit said, adding Stender was expecting funds from ICC and REM grants as well as his insurance. However, according to the non-profit, no payments towards the $11,000 bill paid by Coastal Habitat for Humanity have been received.
In August 2014, a month after the house was demolished, the non-profit met with the Stender’s regarding a rebuild and any subsequent financial help they needed and that is when Mulligan pulled the plug. After seeing plans for the home she immediately bowed out due to the size and scope of the project, which far exceeded what the non-profit does to help flood victims rebuild.
The proposed plan, filed with the Manasquan construction office, called for an elevated two-story, four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom home, an elevator, two screened in porches, an outdoor shower with louvered ceiling, privacy screen and changing area.
“This was not the type of house that Habitat builds,” Mulligan said, explaining that normally the non-profit erects a two- to three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath house.
According to the non-profit’s website, Coastal Habitat for Humanity helps homeowners who cannot afford the cost of repairs due to damage from Superstorm Sandy. While not an arm of the government, the non-profit does receive some government funding.
This is not the first time the assemblywoman’s actions resulted in controversy.
In 2006 when Stender was on the Union County Freeholder Board, her husband’s bid to print the county-financed Union County Directions, under the auspices of the Union County Alliance, was accepted despite a considerably lower bid submitted by Rentec Design Studio, owned by Joe Renna.
According to information obtained from public records involving Union County Directions, Richard Stender’s bid was for $20,000 more for the issues he printed of the newspaper than the Renna’s.
Stender charged the Alliance $31,892.40 for printing and mailing the 1999 summer issue, which was $13,970 more than Rentec Design Studio, whose bid was $17,920 for the same work.
The Union County Alliance was also charged an additional $640 for film, which was not included in the original quote, but was in Rentec’s bid quote.
Stender also printed the fall 1999 issue of Union County Directions, charging over $18,000, not including film.
In total, Stender was paid $33,238 for two issues of the heavily Democratic newspaper.
Stender was elected to the Assembly in 2001, and the former freeholder was put on the county payroll in January 2002 as a volunteer coordinator at a salary of $66,083. This was in addition to her assembly salary of $49,000 a year.
When Stender ran for a congress seat in 2006, the county moved her to Runnell’s Hospital Foundation as director of the non-profit at a salary of $72,858, which in part was paid for by a grant.
Just recently, Stender was named the deputy director of the Union County Improvement Authority, with a salary of $90,000 annually. This new position has raised the ire of critics, who say the system is rigged to allow elected officials to “double-dip” in patronage jobs to pad their pensions. State law bars officials from holding two elected positions, but there is nothing holding politicians back from holding government jobs while in office, and Stender is just one of many New Jersey politicians who supplement their income with appointed governmental positions.