The longer it takes Washington to respond to suffocating new flood insurance rates for millions of property owners, the clearer it is that last year's so-called reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program need more work. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators including Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio renewed a promise to persuade Congress to embrace a retroactive delay on higher premiums for homes built before federal flood maps existed. That would be a start, but the broader aim of any new legislation should be a reconsideration of the assumptions used to calculate the exorbitant rates in the first place.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, the subsidies for flood insurance granted under the national flood program aren't just for expensive waterfront homes. As the Tampa Bay Times reported Tuesday, of the 33,000 older homes in Pinellas County receiving subsidies, the median value is $132,245 and the size is typically 1,430 square feet. Two out of three of the homes don't have a view of the water — even in peninsular Pinellas. Under changes effective Tuesday as part of the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012, those homeowners will face substantially higher rates when they renew — roughly 20 percent each year for the next five years to reach so-called "market rates." Even more devastating for the real estate market and the Florida economy: New owners of such homes must pay the "market rate" immediately.
But just what is the market rate based on? Even senators said Tuesday that's unclear. Part of the law's goal is to create a program solvent enough so that future Treasury loans won't be necessary, and to retire about $25 billion in loans the flood insurance program has in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. But how quickly that debt is retired has a big impact on rates. In some cases, for example, Times reporters have found new rates that mean a new owner of an older home would pay rates equal to one-twelfth the value of their home every year. Biggert-Waters had anticipated providing some relief from the new rates on a by-need basis, based on the results of an affordability study that still hasn't been completed.
No one disputes that the program needs long-term reform. But causing short-term economic calamity for families and dozens of communities nationwide is irresponsible. And nowhere is that danger more acute than in Florida, which has five of the top 10 counties in the country impacted by Tuesday's rate changes: Pinellas, Miami-Dade, Lee, Broward and Collier.
Rubio finally got past Washington's current partisan theatrics to embrace his responsibility to help find a solution for Floridians. Far less helpful was the partisanship of Gov. Rick Scott, who tried to blame President Barack Obama. Only the U.S. House and Senate can do the work needed to fix Biggert-Waters. It's time for Congress to do its job.