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Florida home-hardening grant program seeks permanent funding

Former state Sen. Jeff Brandes called the state’s program “political theater.”
 
An aerial view of hurricane damage on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Pine Island, Florida.
An aerial view of hurricane damage on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Pine Island, Florida. [ MATIAS J. OCNER | Miami Herald ]
Published Dec. 18, 2023

A home hardening grant program that provides up to $10,000 in matching funds has proven so popular, the governor is proposing that the Legislature approve a permanent recurring outlay of $107 million a year.

And while most insurance executives at the Florida Chamber’s annual Insurance Summit in Orlando praised the program for its potential to reduce insurance payouts after hurricanes, a former state senator pushed back by calling it “a terrible idea, because … math.”

More than 40,000 Florida homeowners have applied for grants offered by the My Safe Florida Home program over the past year.

The program offers $2 in state funding, totaling up to $10,000, for every $1 spent by residents on home-hardening projects like impact windows and doors, reinforced garage doors, and new roofs with roof-deck attachments, roof-to-wall connections, and secondary water barriers.

The program’s goal, according to sponsors, is to provide insurance discounts to homeowners while reducing hurricane damage.

Homeowners in Broward and Palm Beach counties so far have secured the largest number of grants of all 67 Florida counties, according to data released to the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Friday.

Of 23,023 grants approved through Dec. 14, Broward County homeowners have been approved for 4,954 and Palm Beach County homeowners secured 3,097, the data shows.

Rounding out the top five counties were Pinellas with 2,493; Miami-Dade with 1,464; and Brevard with 1,444.

Statewide, more than 17,000 grant applicants are awaiting decisions about their applications. The program stopped accepting applications in September while waiting to see if the state Legislature approves additional funding for the program during the upcoming session that begins in January.

So far, $401 million has been allocated to the program since May 2022 — enough to set aside $10,000 each for most of the 40,765 homeowners who have applied for grants.

Of the 22,240 homeowners whose grant applications have been approved, 4,198 have had their projects completed and received their grant checks as of Dec. 7, data from the Department of Financial Services shows.

The program has proven so popular that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is asking the Legislature to fund it on a permanent, recurring basis, according to the 2024-2025 budget request that DeSantis released this month.

A news release stated that DeSantis is seeking $107 million each year for the program, in addition to $401 million already earmarked over the past two years.

The first three funding proposals sailed through the Legislature with strong bipartisan support. The largest outlay — $176 million — was approved during a special session in November, but that money was limited to homeowners who previously submitted grant applications.

Insurance industry members at the Insurance Summit on Dec. 14 and 15 hailed the program as helping to make Florida buildings more resistant to costly hurricane damage.

Every $1 spent on mitigation saves $3 in hurricane damage, said Christian Camara, senior fellow at the James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank that promotes free markets, limited government, and economic liberty.

Camara explained that he typically does not believe in solving problems with taxpayer resources.

But, he said, if the state is going to do something to lower insurance rates, it should be an investment in the My Safe Florida Home Program.

“Hardening Florida’s built environment is ultimately the only way to reduce (insurance) losses and reducing losses is really the only way to reduce rates,” he said.

Justin O’Keefe, chief underwriting officer for RenaissanceRe, provider of catastrophe reinsurance to state-regulated insurers, cited the hundreds of millions of dollars that the program has committed to mitigation as one of several key developments making the state more attractive to global reinsurance investors.

“That’s real from a reinsurer’s point of view of how to mitigate loss and therefore reduce (reinsurance) pricing,” O’Keefe said.

But former state Sen. Jeff Brandes, now president of a think tank he founded called the Florida Policy Project, took a dissenting view.

The Tampa-area Republican said it would be too costly — and take too long — to harden Florida homes if the state committed to spending $150 million a year.

“Based on the amount of Florida households today, it will take 554 years — if we stopped building homes today — to secure everybody’s house,” he said.

“So it’s math. It’s great political theater. I mean, it’s so simple for the Legislature to go out and say, ‘We’re going to write a $540 million check with your money to buy your neighbor’s new windows.’ But we can only get half the new windows. We can’t get them all, so come back next year.”

The $176 million spent in November only addressed homeowners on the waiting list, he said.

“So if you were a new person and you heard about the program and you wanted to go and apply for that, great, you’ve got to get on the new waiting list because we just funded the old waiting list.”

Brandes, who was an outspoken critic of the state’s approach to insurance reform during his senate tenure that ended in 2022, said that if the state wants to mitigate property damage potential, it should find other ways to do it.

Because the program is first-come, first-serve, homeowners can avoid being stuck on a waiting list by being among the first to apply for a grant after the program begins accepting grant applications again — if the Legislature approves the request for a recurring $107 million.

Camara said whether Florida should continue to fund the program out of its general revenue tax funds every year is “a public policy question.”

Another idea is to create a recurring funding source, such as a surcharge on home purchases, he said.

A detailed report of the program’s first year will be released by Feb. 1, Department of Financial Services chief business officer Stephen Fielder, who oversees the program, told the State Administration & Technology Appropriations Subcommittee last Tuesday.

Florida homeowners can check on the status of the My Safe Florida Home program by going to its website, https://mysafeflhome.com/.

Ron Hurtibise covers business and consumer issues for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached by phone at 954-356-4071, on Twitter @ronhurtibise or by email at rhurtibise@sunsentinel.com.