Friday, January 31, 2014

U.S. Senate Passes Flood Insurance Bill - Broad Channel residents urge swift action by House to do same

Homeowners in coastal communities through Queens – and the rest of the country – breathed a hesitant sigh of relief this week after the U.S. Senate voted Thursday to pass legislation that would delay flood insurance premiums from skyrocketing. Now, Queens leaders are urging the U.S. House of Representatives and President Obama to support the bill. Photo by Richard York

The U.S. Senate passed legislation on Thursday that would delay for four years what many Queens residents are calling devastating increases in flood insurance premiums, and New York legislators and borough denizens are now calling on the U.S. House of Representatives to quickly act on the measure.
The Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act landed bipartisan support, passing the Senate 67-32 in a vote that ends months of fighting among legislators over the bill that requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency to complete an affordability study and propose solutions to address flood insurance cost issues before premiums can be raised.
With the Senate’s approval, the bill must now receive the greenlight from the U.S. House of Representatives and President Obama.
The Senate’s stamp of approval on the bill “is an important step in the fight to prevent tens of thousands of New Yorkers from facing crippling flood insurance premium increases and loss of property value,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), one of the bill’s co-sponsors.
“New Yorkers are still recovering from the destructive force of Superstorm Sandy and back-to-back years of extreme weather and flooding, and this bill prevents for many the injustice that these homeowners were going to face – increased flood insurance premiums that can break the bank,” Schumer continued. “The bottom line is that FEMA must do the required affordability study first. It makes no sense to raise the flood insurance rates before we consider how homeowners will be able to afford to pay them, so I am urging my colleagues in the House to quickly follow suit and pass this bill.”
The Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act was introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and is co-sponsored by Schumer, Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and 26 other senators. Supporters of the delay in the House, including co-sponsor Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island), voted 281-146 last year on an amendment to postpone premium increases, but the House is still required to vote on the bill that passed the Senate Thursday.  Schumer explained that the vote in the House last year was evidence that there was a good base of support for delaying flood insurance rate hikes, but that he would be urging his colleagues in the House to pass the Senate bill as quickly as possible.
The bill was drafted in response to the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act – a piece of legislation passed by Congress that phases out some subsidized insurance rates and allows for rate increases of about 20 to 25 percent each year until properties reach actuarial status.
While supporters of the Biggert-Waters Act have said the bill was meant to make a debt-ridden National Flood Insurance Program more fiscally stable, as it has been hemorrhaging money, homeowners in Queens and other coastal communities across the city and nation have said the rates would force individuals from their homes because they would not be able to afford the increases – particularly after so many shelled out significant amounts of money to rebuild following Hurricane Sandy. Homeowners throughout the country have reported drastic increases, including premiums skyrocketing from $4,500 each year to $45,000 annually.
Peter Mahon, president of Broad Channel’s West 12th Road Block Association, has in the past said the act could create entire ghost towns along the country’s coastline as individuals abandon their properties – many of which could fall into foreclosure if they cannot be sold because of the premium costs
“We have to get smarter with how we’re doing things with flooding, for sure – but what they’re doing seems like a land grab,” said Sophia Vailakis-DeVirgilio, a Broad Channel residents who still has not been able to move back into her home that was destroyed in Superstorm Sandy. “How are you going to impose on people flood insurance rates that no one can afford?”
While some lawmakers have said the bill should have the necessary support for the House to pass it,  others have aired concerns that it could be in trouble because House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has criticized the measure.
“The problem is going to be down at the other end of that hallway because the speaker of the House has already said he doesn’t like it,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said on the House floor Monday. “But what he’s going to find out is a lot of the members of the House of Representatives have constituents who are facing 10-fold increases in their flood insurance.”
Nelson, like lawmakers throughout the country – including Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), emphasized the ramifications of Biggert-Waters on the economy.
“You can say you want rates to go up and be actuarially sound, but…if people can’t afford it because it’s 10 times as much, or that because it is so high that it completely dries up the real estate market – well, that’s not helping anybody,” he said on the House floor Monday evening. “That’s hurting a lot of people, and it’s hurting our economic recovery just at the moment at which the real estate market is coming back all along hte coast of America, as well as along the rivers and lakes – the very places that flood insurance is necessary for a homeowner or business.”
Other legislators have also slammed the president for his administration’s statement issued Monday stating opposition to the bill. The statement did not, several lawmakers pointed out, say the president would veto the bill.
“The administration strongly supports a phased transition to actuarially sound flood insurance rates, as provided for by [Biggert Waters], in order to enable policyholders and communities to adjust to risk-based premiums,” the policy statement said. “Transitioning to actuarially sound rates will ensure that the [National Flood Insurance Program] has adequate resources to pay policyholders’ future claims without increasing the program’s debt levels.”
As the debate in Washington rages on, Queens residents said they hope the final outcome will translate, after more than a year of what has seemed to many like non-stop trials following Sandy, to a life that could potentially be a little more normal – or, if not that, a little less stressful.
“There are remedies here,” Vailakis-DeVirgilio said. “We can take care of all of this.”
By Anna Gustafson

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