Proposed flood-insurance law just a life raft

Posted: March 17, 2014

Drew Ferrara and Connie Kaminski expected flood-insurance premiums to rise in parts of Yardley, a Bucks County river town swamped by three major floods between September 2004 and June 2006.

But not by 800 percent.

When the insurance bill arrived in December for their two-story real estate office near the Delaware River, they saw premiums jump from about $3,000 a year to nearly $27,000.

"The absurdity of it was shocking," Ferrara said. "Who can afford to pay this type of insurance?"

In the last few months, property owners in the Philadelphia region on both sides of the river have begun to feel the effects of a massive effort to refloat the National Flood Insurance Program, which is $24 billion in debt to the U.S. Treasury. For the taxpayer, that debt - which may never be repaid - amounts to about $180 per household.

To save money, the federal government started phasing out artificially low - "grandfathered" - insurance rates on older properties in flood zones, many of which received federal aid to rebuild after floods.

The law could affect nearly 10,000 people in the eight-county region, from owners of a Shore bungalow to people who live in rowhouses in working-class Eastwick in Southwest Philadelphia.

Nationally, New Jersey ranks third in insurance program payouts with $5.5 billion since 1978. Pennsylvania is seventh, at $1.1 billion.

After an outbreak of outrage across the country, particularly in coastal areas, Congress passed legislation last week that would buffer the impact of the dramatic increases in flood-insurance premiums. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law. And lawmakers have promised to try to find a more permanent solution for property owners and taxpayers.

Under the new law, insurance rates for the Yardley real estate office, for instance, would return to $3,000. But premiums would increase 25 percent every year until they reached $27,000 - or a rate that reflects the true risk of owning a structure near the river in Yardley.

Fears remain that people won't be able to sell their properties or won't be able to meet jacked-up monthly payments. Some have warned of falling home values and communities all but disappearing.

"It is in no one's interest to have some of these neighborhoods turn into ghost towns," said State Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D., Bucks), who has fielded several calls on the issue from constituents.

Lawmakers in Harrisburg are exploring the idea of a loan bank to help owners elevate properties to decrease insurance rates, said Adam Pankake, executive director of the Senate's Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

But the insolvency of the insurance program remains a concern. J. Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, said the new legislation would further delay the program's ability to right itself financially.

Congress will likely have to write off the program's $24 billion debt, much of it the result of payouts to victims of Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, Hunter said. And it's unclear whether the subsidy phaseout can protect the program's finances in the long run, said the Government Accountability Office, an independent agency within Congress.

Under the legislation passed last week, coverage for a primary residence would increase 5 percent to 15 percent each year until rates captured the full risk of living in a flood-prone area.

For Scott Burgess, who owns a house in Lower Makefield, Bucks County, the increase could be no more than $525 next year. He currently pays $3,500. Burgess said he didn't know the extent to which his premiums would rise. And he's worried about his ability to sell.

"Home buyers are not going to want to be paying more toward flood insurance than toward their principal," he said.

Owners of houses that have flooded multiple times would have a steeper increase, 25 percent each year. So would owners of businesses, rental properties, and second homes.

Joanne Graham, a grant writer who lives in Eastwick, is considering moving. She pays $1,700 for coverage on a house that has flooded several times. Her premiums would rise next year to $2,125.

"I've been here for 26 years and intended to stay," Graham said. "Now, I'm really considering other options."

Brian Garlits' family owns five rental properties in Yardley with a combined annual flood-insurance premium of nearly $12,000. He said those properties would lose resale and market value as the premiums rose. Thus, he'll consider appealing the tax assessments.

"This is going to hurt not only the property owner," Garlits said, "but also have a huge impact on the tax base of each community."

Michael Clark, who lives in Drexel Hill, Delaware County, said the new law would offer some relief after rates on his tiny bungalow in Wildwood Crest rose from about $1,000, to almost $4,000. The increase would drop to about $268 in the first year under the new legislation.

"I can now get my finances in order to elevate my house," said Clark, who works in the financial-services industry and who bought the bungalow to use with his wife and three children. "It gives me time."

Hunter and other critics through the years, however, have held that the flood insurance program, established in the late 1960s, is overdue for an overhaul.

It was designed to cut disaster expenses by having property owners pay for flood insurance not covered under traditional policies and requiring towns to make floodplains safer.

In the 1970s, to assess policyholders' risks and set rates, the federal government undertook one of the most exhaustive mapping projects in U.S. history to identify flood-prone areas.

Properties built before the era of floodplain mapping, which began in the mid-1970s, have benefited from deep subsidies, and they have been a major drain on the program. Meanwhile, disaster costs have soared.

Ferrara and Kaminski, at the Yardley real estate office, were fortunate. They reached an agreement with their lender to forgo coverage by paying $6,000 annually into a flood fund.

Such an agreement wouldn't be available to everyone, and Ferrara wonders what a bank will do if someone defaults on a mortgage because of rising flood-insurance rates. He doubts the bank could sell the property.

He paraphrased what he believed FEMA has done to flood-weary communities: "We told you to rebuild. We helped you rebuild. We gave you the money to rebuild. And now we've pulled out the rug from under you."

610-313-8118 @Ben_Finley

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