Worry floods property owners at seminar on insurance rate hikes

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There was an overflow crowd at a free flood insurance seminar Wednesday night at St. Pete College, where Pinellas County Property Appraiser Pam Dubov predicted that impending rate hikes will “cause foreclosures.”

“These are scary times,” Dubov told a crowd of about 300 property owners about changes to the National Flood Insurance Program, which go into effect Oct. 1.

The subsidized flood insurance program has been around since 1968, but now Congress is phasing it out.

Florida is impacted more than any other state by premium increases that may be as high as 20 percent a year for property owners in high risk areas. The state has the highest number of subsidized insurance policies in the nation.

Across Florida, the three counties with the highest number of subsidized policy holders are Lee, 30,000; Miami-Dade, 47,000, and Pinellas, with 50,255.

No one is sure what the final impact will be, as federal flood maps are being revised to include more properties.

Property owners were warned not to let their policies lapse, which will trigger automatic increases at the “actuarial” level when they are renewed.

At the same time, properties will no longer be “grandfathered” to keep rates at previous levels. Property owners were urged to get a certificate of elevation for their homes and businesses. Dubov said she cannot find any database where that information has been collected. Flood insurance rates will be based on elevation levels.

Connie Neuhaus said she appreciated Dubov’s candor and the information. But she had heard enough.

Neulhaus left the seminar during the public’s question-and-answer session. Neuhaus’ husband is disabled. She supports the family but earns $30,000 less than she did five years ago. She also has seen the deductible on their health insurance plan rise to $5,000 per year.

Now the family will be socked with another expense just to try to maintain their standard of living, she said.

Neuhaus believes it is inevitable that their flood insurance rate will increase. Their home is near Seminole Lake. They have lived in their house for 18 years, and never once experienced flooding.

But because the home is in a low-lying area – it is a foot or two below “base elevation” – they have been required to carry flood insurance, which runs about $1,700 per year. The rate has been fairly steady over the years and affordable.

Neuhaus said that she has not heard from their insurance company but expects that the rate will spike.

“If our mortgage goes up because of this, we could lose our house,” Neuhaus said. “We can’t afford to pay $500 more a month.”

It’s unclear right now when property owners will be notified, as some policies will continue at their current rate and only rise when the home is sold.

Even condominium dwellers on upper floors will not get off easy, as an association’s flood insurance rates will be determined by the base elevation of the building.