Three years ago, Tampa Bay was roiling over massive flood insurance rate hikes. Home sales in some neighborhoods literally stopped. Real estate agents warned the market could collapse. Lawmakers held town halls and rallied from Tallahassee to Washington for help.
Then Congress passed a temporary reprieve, and nearly all fears subsided. "It went from screaming loud madness to not even a whisper," said Robin Sollie, head of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.
Brace yourself for the chorus of discontent to rise up again. That 2014 congressional fix slowed down — but didn't stop — the first wave of higher flood insurance premiums that is now hitting homeowners.
"There's nothing you can do about it," said Sollie, who this summer got the sticker shock of a 21 percent increase for her beachfront home in St. Pete Beach's Belle Vista neighborhood.
"You can shop the private market or you pay it or you have to sell your house. As these higher rates are coming in, people are starting to put their houses up."
The good news: Owners of low-lying homes won't endure a repeat scare of annual flood premiums immediately jumping five- or six-fold into the tens of thousands of dollars. But like a rising tide lapping at doorsteps, year after year of flood rate increases of 9 percent to more than 20 percent in some cases are coming, eventually pushing homeowners toward that higher, unsubsidized level.
Some real estate agents caution prospective buyers that their flood rates will double within four or five years.
As Jay Neal, president and CEO of the Florida Association of Insurance Reform, puts it: the flood insurance crisis is "a little quieter … but no less painful."
The sharply higher rates are an attempt to stabilize the National Flood Insurance Program, which was financially decimated by Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy and left desperate to climb out of a $23 billion deficit. Its solution was to target the 20 percent of NFIP properties in low-lying areas that had enjoyed lower, subsidized rates for decades.
With more affected homeowners than any other state — and more subsidized properties in Pinellas than any other county in the country — Florida has led the awareness campaign and tried to find answers, says state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, an advocate of private insurance options.
Yet, nearly all the solutions Florida has come up with so far have a downside:
• Raising the level of existing homes can be costly and in some cases impractical. "How would you raise (flood-susceptible) Shore Acres?" Brandes says. "How many times would you be spending more to raise a home than what it's worth?"
• A few private insurers, like Tampa-based Homeowners Choice and Sarasota-based Centauri Insurance, are offering a limited number of private flood policies that undercut the federal NFIP rates. But they're choosy on who qualifies and not all mortgage companies outside Florida allow private insurance anyway. (Centauri recently became the first insurer to have its flood endorsement certified by the Office of Insurance Regulation, making it acceptable by mortgage companies.) More problematic: If homeowners are later dropped by a private insurer and forced back into the NFIP, they may have to pay for a new, unsubsidized flood policy. That could immediately boost their bill from under $1,000 up to tens of thousands of dollars.
• Actuaries from the Milliman consulting firm are creating new models to determine elevation levels house-by-house. Their goal is to offer clients — private property insurers — a way to sell targeted flood policies to owners of higher-elevated homes much cheaper than NFIP. But that program could take years to gain widespread adoption.
Brandes worries about having enough time to build a viable private flood insurance marketplace before the cost of the public option becomes untenable for many. "We're between the lightning and the thunder," he said.
To real estate agent Cyndee Haydon, who sells homes on Clearwater Beach, none of the solutions goes far enough; they only "help us move real estate in the short-term."
Haydon has her share of clients either avoiding purchase of a home in a high-risk, flood zone area or trying to sell one before market conditions worsen. She dissuades buyers from seeking private flood insurance, saying it's too risky if they're dropped and then have to pay full-boat for a new NFIP policy.
So far, the overall impact on selling prices for flood-prone homes has been remarkably muted.
Pinellas County Property Appraiser Pam Dubov surprised herself when she began dissecting some of the latest home sales figures.
Perhaps it wasn't a shock that beachfront homes are getting more expensive with a flood of cash buyers betting on rising property values. But then Dubov turned to Shore Acres, poster child for a low-lying, less upscale, inland Pinellas community that would have been hit hard if Congress had not overhauled the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012 (the law that triggered the high rate increases in the first place).
She examined sales over the year in a smattering of Shore Acres neighborhoods where anywhere from 65 percent to 92 percent of the homes have subsidized flood insurance rates. "I'm looking at double-digit (sales price) increases for all of them," Dubov said.
Haydon sees such rising real estate values as an indication buyers may be clueless to how a few years of exponentially higher rates will hit their pocketbooks.
"Because of the tight inventory at the beaches, some home buyers are more likely to buy a home in this seller's market that requires flood insurance and utilize higher deductibles, not really understanding the rate at which their flood insurance will rise," she said.
"At current rates, most homeowners will see their (flood insurance premiums) doubling every four to five years depending on whether it's their primary or second home."
Cristy Assidy said a 10 percent rate increase to the $2,300 flood insurance tab for her family's home in Riviera Bay near Weedon Island is not enough to push them out of their home. It's certainly better than the $17,000 bill they had faced if Biggert-Waters hadn't been changed.
But is it fair? Hardly, she says.
"It's still unreasonable," said Assidy, a 42-year-old nurse. "They have to take another look at this. It's not an acceptable answer for anybody to say that … after five years it would be unaffordable. They put a Band-Aid on it, but we're still hemorrhaging."
Like many owners of homes that have never flooded, she challenges the accuracy of federal flood maps used to set rates.
What's particularly irksome to many is that Florida is not responsible for NFIP's shortfall even as it shoulders the brunt of the financial fix. An oft-noted 2011 study by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Center for Risk Management and Decision Processes found that Florida has paid in four times more in premiums than it has gotten back in payouts since the National Flood Insurance Program started.
The study's author, Erwann Michel-Kerjan, said last week that since there has been no major hurricane since his analysis, his key finding hasn't changed. Florida is still, by far, a net donor into the federal flood insurance program.
Strategies to avoid high rates
Ray and Kate Leone made it through the first flood insurance scare.
In 2013, they learned their flood insurance premium was set to jump from $2,200 to $12,700.
The Biggert-Waters fix postponed their financial pain — their current flood policy is about $2,300 with a $5,000 deductible — but they don't want to face the same nightmare again.
Since they don't have a mortgage for their Madeira Beach home, they're not required to have flood insurance. They're investigating whether to self-insure like some of their neighbors. "If it goes up too much," Kate Leone said, "we're just not going to have flood insurance and we'll hope that's the right call."
Ray Leone, 68, considers himself "a numbers guy," having spent a career in finance with banks, a computer leasing company, a medical equipment leasing company and his own investment fund. He toys with setting aside $12,000 a year now sitting in investments into a family emergency fund that may never be tapped, rather than give the money to NFIP.
Mike and Sandi Bryce live on a canal in Madeira Beach and, like the Leones, don't have a mortgage. And like the Leones, they're considering dropping flood coverage.
Mike Bryce, 68, a retiree who was in the U.S. Navy for 34 years, says he has been paying flood insurance since he and his wife bought their house in 2010. But living on a fixed income, he's wary about how much their $1,800 in flood premiums will rise when the October renewal rolls around. If it's too much, "flood (coverage) would be the first thing I would let go," he said. "One of our friends two streets over from us who lives on a canal ended up dropping flood insurance already."
Verla and Robert Waldo, retirees who live in an 864-square-foot home in Seminole, managed to cut their flood premiums by knocking their mortgage down to $22,000. But Verla Waldo, 75, said that reduced annual expense — $467 for $45,300 in coverage — is still too much for a house that has never had flood damage. "We're right on the edge of the flood zone and I think it's ridiculous we even have to have it at all," she said.
Homeowners Randy and Stephanie Sessions seized on another rate-fighting strategy.
The former residents of East Lake Woodlands in Oldsmar wanted to move closer to the beach but also wanted a home elevated out of the flood zone. So they bought a Tierra Verde townhome where the living quarters are on the second story above the garage with all electrical systems elevated.
"We're still required to have flood (coverage) but because we're elevated, that flood insurance is much, much less," said Stephanie Sessions, executive director of Suncoast PACE, a nonprofit that helps Pinellas County seniors with chronic health problems. Not only are their current flood rates a fraction of nearby Tierra Verde homes (about $700 a year compared to more than $2,500 that some neighbors are paying), they won't have sharply higher insurance bills every year.
"We probably would not have bought a home in a flood zone, knowing what we know," she said. Added her husband, Randy, 58, a self-employed contract design engineer: "We didn't even look at homes that were basically on the ground. It had to be 11-and-a-half feet above flood stage. That's all we were interested in."
Private flood insurance
When the flood insurance crisis struck in 2013, Homeowners Choice Insurance was one of the first to tiptoe into selling private insurance, saying it could undercut NFIP rates.
Eventually Homeowners Choice's parent company, HCI Group, carved out a subsidiary called TypTap that was devoted to flood insurance.
Paresh Patel, HCI's chief executive, said TypTap has been well-received by both agents and policyholders. Between TypTap and Homeowners Choice policies, HCI now offers flood coverage to just shy of 1,000 policyholders.
About 400 new policies were rolled over into TypTap in the second quarter, he said, with property owners saving as much as 50 percent compared to an NFIP policy.
"I don't want to put out a slogan, 13 seconds could save you 50 percent or something, but (homeowners) have seen those kinds of savings, yes," Patel said in an earnings conference call with analysts last week.
A catchy slogan only goes so far, however, if TypTap or any other private insurer later drops that flood policy and forces a homeowner back into NFIP, this time paying the unsubsidized rate. "It's scary," said Patty Latshaw of St. Petersburg-based Wright National Flood Insurance, the biggest provider of federal flood insurance policies in the country.
In an interview, Patel said that concern is overblown and many property owners would not have to pay the top-end rates if they wind up back in NFIP.
Regardless, private insurance has yet to gain a foothold, let alone widespread acceptance. The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation estimates there are a mere 3,000 private flood policies compared to 2 million federal flood policies statewide.
Neal, of the Florida Association of Insurance Reform, maintains the answer to Florida's insurance woes lies elsewhere.
Just as hurricane-prone Florida has focused on wind mitigation techniques such as installing storm shutters and stronger windows, it should embrace flood mitigation the same way, he says.
Mitigation could be raising a structure. Or raising electrical systems. Or installing products like the one marketed by New Jersey-based Smart Vent Products. Smart Vent sells a system that is designed to let water pass through the bottom of a home so a flood wouldn't rise up through the house or damage the foundation.
"We have to focus on mitigation," Neal insists. "It's the only way that Florida remains sustainable."
Not counting on the feds
Like many, Neal isn't banking on another quick federal fix. This time, there is no burgeoning congressional support for keeping flood rates in check. There is no outcry; no community forums; no rallies.
"My appraisers aren't even hearing from people that flood insurance is an issue," said Dubov, the county property appraiser. "It's like a lot of things. If it's not staring in your face as a crisis, it's out-of-sight, out-of-mind."
For all of the statistics that abound in her office, Dubov is most concerned about one stat she doesn't know: How many owners of flood-prone homes who don't have a mortgage have decided the cost of buying flood coverage isn't worth it? And how many will drop it in the months and years to come?
"What keeps me awake at night," she said, "is wondering what's going to happen if we do have a terrible storm and we have so many people who don't have flood insurance at all."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Jeff Harrington at email@example.com. Follow @JeffMHarrington.