Owners of houses damaged by Superstorm Sandy still struggling to juggle a mortgage and rent while their homes are repaired have a chance to delay their bank payments for more than two years. But they must act quickly.

The state Department of Community Affairs is operating a mortgage forbearance program, as required under a law Gov. Chris Christie signed in February, but the application deadline is 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 31.

To date, 638 people have applied, and 334 have been approved for a mortgage forbearance certification, said Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs.

One hundred sixty-six people have been deemed ineligible, and 98 withdrew their application, Ryan said.

Amanda Devecka-Rinear, director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, said she wishes more people had been approved and encouraged people to file before the deadline.

“We’ve definitely heard stories where people have had to try to apply multiple times before it finally made sense and they were able to get through. So if there were a time to give it another try, it would be between now and 5 p.m. tomorrow,” Devecka-Rinear said Tuesday.

“There’s sort of an ongoing wariness and suspicion about trying to work with any state program,” Devecka-Rinear said. “I think there may be more people who are thinking of applying but understandably wary to get into another sort of struggle with records and paperwork.”

“I’m not going to lie to you: In some cases it seems to have gone really smoothly, and in other cases it has been a bit of an effort for people,” she said. “But at the end of the day, if you still need funds to finish your project or if you’re having a hard time keeping up on your mortgage or behind on your mortgage, it’s something you can try.”

To qualify, a homeowner must have an outstanding mortgage on a Sandy-impacted home, have construction or elevation work still being done on that primary residence and qualify as a Sandy-impacted homeowner by receiving funds through the state’s federally funded rebuilding programs, RREM and LMI, or rental assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A forbearance suspends the payments but doesn’t reduce the amount of the mortgage. Certified homeowners can arrange for mortgage payments to be delayed until as long as July 2019. They must continue paying property taxes and insurance during the forbearance period.

The state mailed notification to approximately 30,000 Sandy-impacted homeowners who may be eligible, as well as around 1,500 lenders.

Devecka-Rinear said she wishes the state had informed people in those letters that if they’re already midway through foreclosure proceedings, they can ask the courts for a stay under the new law.

“You probably have been asking and trying to get out of the foreclosure there. Let them know about the law and see if that and the forbearance are good cause to help you get a break and hold onto your house, so you don’t have to lose the house you fought so hard to get back to,” she said.

Devecka-Rinear said the challenge under the new law has been the banks, not the state DCA. She encouraged any Sandy-impacted homeowners having trouble getting their banks to cooperate to reach out to her organization, which wants to study if there’s a pattern to it.

“People are having a hard time getting through at their bank to someone who knows what’s happening,” she said. “They’ll get the runaround from the first three or four people, and then finally someone will call them who’s like, ‘Yes, we understand this is the law. And yes, we’re going to comply with the law.”

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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