No easy fix on flood insurance, but options exist

Associated PressMarch 25, 2014 

Flood Insurance

Regina Bachman looks through papers dealing flood insurance on her property inside her home in Loveland, Ohio on Friday, March 21, 2014. Bachman bought the home in September 2013 and was initially told by the bank that flood insurance on the property would be affordable, only to find out after closing that the rates were going to increase over $7,000 more annually with new premiums for the National Flood Insurance Program. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

AL BEHRMAN — AP

NEW YORK -- There's no easy fix for the National Flood Insurance Program, now drowning in a $24 billion sea of red ink.

But experts and advocates say Congress does have some options that could make the troubled program financially stable, more affordable and more effective at motivating change in communities built too close to the water.

Lawmakers this month tweaked the troubled program for the second time in two years after acknowledging that a previous overhaul in 2012 had socked too many policyholders with rate hikes they couldn't afford. The legislation, however, only put off the day of reckoning.

At least 1.1 million policyholders are still likely to see insurance premiums rise substantially in the next few years as the government whittles down rate subsidies for people in the riskiest flood zones. The Associated Press, in a story published Monday, found hundreds of river towns, port cities and coastal communities where future rate hikes might make it tough for people to keep their homes and businesses.

Yet, if premiums stay as low as they are now, those same communities could cost taxpayers billions of dollars when they do eventually flood, thanks to decades of low premiums that have given homeowners few incentives to flood-proof their

properties.

Congress acknowledged the problem, but offered no solutions, in the stopgap measure signed by the president Friday. The law gives FEMA 18 months to complete an already-overdue study on flood insurance affordability and up to 36 months to find a way to offer targeted assistance to policyholders who can't afford high premiums. It also said FEMA should set a goal of limiting annual premiums to no more than $2,500 per year for $250,000 in coverage, but didn't offer any suggestions on how to do that without bankrupting a program that already charges far more than that for many policies.

That affordability proposal would be due just before the flood insurance program is up for congressional reauthorization in 2017.

One potential option promoted by some experts would be to make low-interest loans available to help people elevate their homes above the high-water mark.

In several papers last year, Carolyn Kousky, a researcher at the environmental science group Resources for the Future, and Howard Kunreuther, co-director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania, proposed a system in which property owners could get vouchers offering relief from high premiums in exchange for raising their homes up on pilings, a high foundation or other supports. The amount of the voucher, which could also cover a slice of the loan payments, would be tied to the owner's income.

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