Bipartisan push to stop flood insurance rate hikes lacks a plan

In a rare show of legislative harmony, virtually all of Florida's political might from Tallahassee to Washington, D.C., is rallying to fight a surge in flood insurance rates.

In Washington, Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio shared a podium Tuesday morning with other senators in a push against a flood program makeover that is raising annual rates for some property owners from roughly $2,000 to more than $10,000.

In a Clearwater rally that drew more than 200 people, Gov. Rick Scott decried the rate hikes that took effect Tuesday as something that could "destroy" Tampa Bay's real estate recovery.

The only thing lacking in Florida's unified political front is a plan.

"There simply has to be relief, and we will pass the relief," Nelson said. "Now the question is finding the legislative vehicle and opportunity to do that given all of the stuff that is going on in the shutdown of the government."

The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 was passed to keep the National Flood Insurance Program solvent for the long term.

To do that, the law targets owners and recent buyers of older properties in flood zones that have been subsidized with lower rates for decades. In most cases, subsidies will be phased out over several years. But in some cases, such as when a home is sold, the subsidy is stripped immediately.

That means some recent buyers of homes are seeing flood premiums rise five-fold or more, depending on their property's elevation level.

In Florida, 268,000 policy holders could face steep increases. Pinellas County has more than 50,000 subsidized properties facing potentially large rate increases, more than any other county in the nation.

"This is about people. This is not just about some government program," said Rubio, who earlier was reluctant to embrace any alternative to Biggert-Waters.

Rubio said he hoped the effort would lead to reforms "that in the long term make this program sustainable and available."

The senators conceded they do not have a concrete plan. Nor is there a consensus among several different plans circulating in the U.S. House, including one sponsored by several local congressmen.

"There are a lot of moving parts to this," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has long been sounding alarms about the legislation, which was tucked into a massive transportation bill last year.

The lawmakers want at least a one-year delay so an affordability study can be completed by FEMA.

Also participating in the news conference were Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., David Vitter, R-La., John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

"This is a huge issue for people not just in Florida or Louisiana and in the area that was hit by Hurricane Sandy," said North Dakota's Heitkamp, whose state has historically had a large number of flood claims for its population. "You might suggest why are we standing here (when) we don't a have a pitch or a proposal? We want to make sure that the message is sent to those folks who are seeing these large increases, that we are working very hard … to get them relief and to not panic, not despair that this will be the reality of their homeownership."

The speakers who joined Gov. Scott outside the Pinellas Association of Realtors' office Tuesday weren't in the mood to wait long for a fix.

"We could be in the second round of a mortgage foreclosure crisis," St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said. "Hit those in Congress to fix Biggert-Waters. This needs to be a bigger priority."

"Each of us has a dream, and that dream is to own a home," Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said. "Biggert-Waters washes away the American dream."

Homeowner Rita Brands said she circulated a door-to-door petition against the flood rate hikes in St. Petersburg's Venetian Isles subdivision. "I brought 600 signatures here, and each one has a story. Each one is very concerned about the future," she said.

Sticking with an earlier script, Gov. Scott repeatedly blamed President Obama for signing Biggert-Waters last year, paving the way for the rate hikes. He also criticized Obama for the partial federal government shutdown happening simultaneously.

Both are examples of "failure of leadership," Scott said.

"We are calling on President Obama to take immediate action to prevent these flood insurance rate hikes on Florida's families, and families across the state," he said. "This is unfair and could devastate the Tampa Bay area's real estate market."

Though the measure won widespread support from both parties a year ago, Scott zeroed in on Obama as the one who should negotiate a fix, saying, "The buck ultimately stops with the president."

Asked if Florida would follow Louisiana's lead in considering filing a lawsuit against the federal government, Scott said that would go through Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office. Earlier, Bondi said she was considering options.

State Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, who also spoke at the event, criticized Scott for politicizing an issue that they were trying to unite over.

Retiree Colin Elston said homeowners like him feel like "collateral damage" of Washington politics. Elston, 71, said he fears the dream retirement home in Treasure Island he bought in June has disintegrated into a nightmare, with flood insurance rates spiralling from less than $2,000 a year to more than $12,000.

Barring congressional action, "We are looking at foreclosure in a year or so," he said.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@tampabay.com.

Bipartisan push to stop flood insurance rate hikes lacks a plan 10/01/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 10:01am]

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