Friday, May 25, 2018
News Roundup

Modest homes in Hillsborough County will feel brunt of new flood insurance law

Just as in Pinellas, it is owners of modest inland homes in Hillsborough County who will feel the brunt of the new flood insurance law.

The median size of the roughly 20,000 Hillsborough homes that will lose their lower, subsidized rates is 1,500 square feet, according to property appraiser data released Wednesday.

The median assessed value is $102,867. And the vast majority of houses — more than 80 percent — are not on the water.

Compounding the sting of huge increases in annual premiums: Hillsborough property owners have paid more than 10 times as much into the program since 1978 as they've gotten back to cover damages.

The Hillsborough figures come two days after the Pinellas property appraiser produced a similar analysis showing that the biggest impact of the Biggert-Waters Act passed by Congress will be on owners of relatively unassuming homes not on the water.

"Obviously there are clusters of homes on the bay,'' said Bob Henriquez, Hillsborough's appraiser. "But you also have them around lakes and other waterways, so it doesn't surprise me that a lot of those are more modest in terms of size or values.''

Whether higher flood rates will depress property values and decrease sales, as many fear, it's too soon to tell, he added.

"We're just going to have to monitor as we would in sinkhole-prone areas,'' Henriquez said, "and see if we can directly tie falling property values over time to this issue.''

The law, designed to return the National Flood Insurance Program to solvency, increases rates up to 25 percent a year for homeowners who live in older homes in the flood zone and eliminates the subsidized rates altogether as soon as the property is sold. Buyers could be hit with premiums five and sometimes even 10 times as much as what the previous owner paid.

Among the many homeowners stunned by the new law is Mike DePue, the recently retired head football coach of Robinson High School.

"I was going to try to sell the house, but my Realtor said wait and see what happens,'' said DePue, whose 1,242-square-foot home, built in 1970, sits in a flood zone a few blocks east of Tampa Bay and a block south of Gandy Boulevard.

DePue pays $2,200 for flood insurance but knows the unsubsidized cost would be prohibitive for most buyers. And if he holds on to the house, his premium will increase so much every year that he predicts it will "be insane.''

"Now that I'm on a fixed income, I'm like a lot of retirees, we're stuck between a rock and hard place with this law,'' DePue, 61, said Wednesday. "The government tied our hands with no options.''

A majority of the affected houses in Hillsborough — nearly 14,000 of some 20,000 — have homestead exemptions. That means they are the owner's primary residence, not a vacation or investment property.

In fact, most of the affected homes in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are a far cry from the waterfront McMansions cited by critics of flood insurance subsidies.

Only 19.4 percent of the 20,000 Hillsborough houses eligible for subsidized rates front a body of water. In Pinellas County — with water on three sides — it's still just 33 percent.

Since 1978, property owners in the two counties have filed a total of 27,176 claims with the National Flood Insurance Program. But as in Florida overall, they've paid more into the program than they've gotten back to cover losses.

As of last year, Hillsborough County property owners had paid $584 million more than they received. The figures are even more dramatic for Pinellas — $1.4 billion more paid in than returned.

The flood program's prime beneficiary: Louisiana, which has received almost four times what its residents paid in premiums, due largely to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Louisiana alone accounts for more than 40 percent of flood claims paid out nationally since 1978.

DePue, the retired coach, knows that a catastrophic hurricane hitting Florida could change all that. But he still thinks Congress dropped the ball in passing a law that could have such a draconian impact on hundreds of thousands of Florida homeowners.

"Did they really read and understand it?'' he wonders. "My Realtor said areas of South Tampa could turn into a ghost town.''

Times researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected]

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