Congress' plan to keep the National Flood Insurance Program from tumbling into insolvency is not working as intended. That much the Tampa Bay delegation that represents Florida in Washington, D.C., can agree on.
The problem is reaching consensus on a new fix — or even a delay.
On Oct. 1, some of the more jarring parts of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 go into effect. Flood insurance costs will jump about 20 percent annually for many who live in older, flood-zone homes that have long enjoyed subsidized rates. Businesses and investors of subsidized properties will see rates rise 25 percent a year until their premiums reflect the full market risk.
The situation is much worse for those who buy these older homes: Their rates could jump fivefold or more. Realtors are blaming just the threat of lost subsidies for scuttling numerous sales as buyers learn that premiums in the $2,000 range could jump into the $10,000 range or worse.
"Right now, there are a number of us who are meeting to discuss possible solutions because our areas are going to get hit hard," said U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, a Republican who represents Hernando and Citrus counties.
One measure Nugent backs is stretching out the 25 percent increase for some over a longer period. It doesn't deal with much of the crisis, he said, but it may be the best that can be hoped for.
"At the end of the day, the vast majority of members of Congress don't represent flood prone areas and they just aren't interested in spending money to bail out districts like mine where the homeowners are going to get hit hard," Nugent said.
Only about 20 percent of flood policies nationally are currently subsidized. But Florida is disproportionately affected, accounting for 40 percent of all flood policies and the lion's share of subsidized properties. Pinellas County will be the nation's hardest-hit county: It has more than 50,000 properties with subsidized flood policies.
Nevertheless, many Florida legislators have been largely silent over the past year as concern over the consequences of Biggert-Waters has continued to build. Politicians from Louisiana have been leading the opposition.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing & Urban Fairs has scheduled a hearing next Wednesday to discuss Biggert-Waters. Louisiana's two senators, Republican David Vitter and Democrat Mary L. Landrieu, are the only politicians listed among the witnesses.
Beyond Nugent, here is where other Florida legislative leaders in Washington, D.C., say they stand on the issue:
• Sen. Bill Nelson (D) supports at least a one-year delay on rate increases and seeking other solutions, spokesman Ryan Brown said.
• Sen. Marco Rubio (R) will continue to work with colleagues on solutions to make the flood program sustainable "without excessively burdening Florida's families," spokeswoman Brooke Sammon said.
• U.S. Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, a Republican who represents most of Pinellas County, wrote FEMA in August citing a Tampa Bay Times report detailing the impact on flood insurance rate hikes. At the time, he indicated some support for a delay and said a rate increase of this magnitude "could devastate the fragile real estate market in many of the beach communities I represent."
• U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Republican representing Pasco and parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, said he supports extending current rates through 2014. "I am committed to finding a workable way to balance the need for a sustainable flood insurance program with the economic realities that Floridians currently face," he said in a statement.
• U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, ''did not support the bill that increased flood insurance rates because it did not offer a reasonable approach to phase in changes," her office said in a statement.
• U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Republican who represents parts of Hillsborough and Polk counties, was not available for comment this week, a spokeswoman said.
Robin Sollie, president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, is organizing a community meeting to talk about flood insurance at 6 p.m. Sept. 25 at the Seminole campus of St. Petersburg College. The goal is to make sure both residential and business property owners — including those who rent from affected businesses — are aware of the potential severity of the rate hikes, Sollie said.
The meeting's purpose may change if Congress approves a delay, but Sollie is concerned that representatives of non-coastal states won't be sympathetic.
"We've got an unfortunate situation where inland representatives don't understand the magnitude of this for us. We need to continue to reach out to those people and explain it to them," she said. "Time is running out."
When it was first approved, community bankers and the National Association of Realtors described Biggert-Waters as a major victory.
Today, some of the most vocal opposition is coming from Realtor groups and community bankers upset that rising flood premiums will not only scuttle sales but also hurt property values.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.