Florida homeowners are about to feel more pain from the federal flood insurance program that treats this state so unfairly. A two-year reprieve on steep premium increases for thousands of homeowners has expired, and there is no end in sight for rising bills that could double or triple over the years. When Congress reviews the broken flood insurance program next year, Florida's congressional delegation should insist on fairer treatment for a state that is paying way more than its fair share.
The numbers add up to one big headache. There are about 2 million federal flood insurance policies in Florida, more than in any other state and more than a third of the overall total. Yet over the history of the program, Floridians have received less than $4 billion of the $50 billion that has been paid out in claims. If anything, homeowners and businesses should be getting discounts instead of being gouged to help make up the program's $23 billion deficit.
Instead, they will keep getting hit hard. Rate increases are on the way that will range from 9 percent to more than 20 percent a year, and owners of homes built before 1975 who have enjoyed subsidized rates that were grandfathered in will be hit particularly hard. Pinellas County is ground zero, with more subsidized policies than any other county nationwide. And don't believe these increases are only hitting beachfront mansions and the wealthy. As Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeff Harrington reported, many Pinellas homeowners facing significant flood insurance rate increases live in middle class neighborhoods from Shore Acres to Pinellas Point. These increases are the equivalent of tax increases on the middle class that normally would bring howls of protest from Republicans who control Congress, but flood insurance is barely on the radar in Washington.
A year ago, state Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty called the National Flood Insurance Program rates "unfairly discriminatory" in Florida. He asked the program to release the data and models it uses so he could analyze the rates based on state law. The state still doesn't have the information, and neither do private insurers who could use the data to more accurately calculate their rates. The least Congress should do is force the program to be more transparent — and that likely would expose exactly how Floridians are being unfairly treated.
More broadly, Congress should insist on changes to the way the federal program uses flood zone maps and require that rates be more individually tailored to specific properties. The Senate should pass legislation sponsored by Reps. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, and Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, that aims to open up a private flood insurance market that has yet to gain traction. And Congress should repeal the requirement that homeowners who leave the federal program, buy private flood insurance and later want to return to the federal program have to pay the full price rather than what they would have paid if they had never left.
Middle class Floridians living in modest, older homes that have never flooded should not be forced to buy flood insurance with high premiums that state regulators never would approve. One analysis shows Florida has paid four times more in premiums than it has gotten back in payouts since the National Flood Insurance Program started. That's fundamentally unfair, and the projected premium increases are a greater threat to the state's economic health than any tax increase from Washington.