The voices of homeowners and businesses in the state’s coastal and riverfront communities who are concerned about potentially substantial increases in flood insurance were heard loud and clear by federal lawmakers who took steps last week to help keep costs down.
“My first reaction is just how proud I am of our towns, Marshfield and Scituate, for organizing to bring attention to how devastating these changes would be on the entire economy,’’ said Democratic state Representative Jim Cantwell of Marshfield. “It’s a very good example of average folks having their voices heard at the local, state, and national level.’’
The US Senate on Thursday passed the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, which would delay implementation of new flood maps until the Federal Emergency Management Agency completes an affordability study, and would put caps to protect homeowners against sudden steep increases in premiums. The plan had been approved earlier by the House of Representatives and will now go to President Obama.
As flood zones were being updated to comply with implementation of the Biggert-Waters National Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, many families and businesses in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the nation were being placed in flood zones for the first time, and were facing thousands of dollars in premiums under new flood insurance rate rules.
Several Massachusetts communities, including Marshfield, Scituate, and Rockport, appealed the new maps, while state and local officials urged Congress to take action to prevent the steep premium hikes. After months of uncertainty, the US House approved legislation earlier this month, and the US Senate followed suit Thursday.
Lynn Ward 6 City Councilor Peter Capano said he’s grateful Congress took action to protect homeowners, many of whom cannot afford sharp increases in insurance.
“There are a lot of people in my area that can barely afford their mortgage, so adding one more expense is difficult,’’ Capano said. “There are some people who weren’t in a flood zone before and suddenly are because a puddle is in front of them. That’s a problem.’’
Capano said he hasn’t read the entire bill, but he thinks it should make a big difference to many homeowners in Lynn.
“It looks like everything is in there,’’ Capano said. “We’ve got good people working in the Massachusetts delegation, and it sounds like they got something through that may help people.’’
Democratic state Senator Karen Spilka of Ashland said the delay on implementation and the caps will help homeowners in her district, including riverfront communities of Ashland, Framingham, and Holliston.
“Some of the increases I was hearing about were in the thousands, and clearly that’s not affordable for the average family struggling to make ends meet, and not fair,’’ Spilka said. “I’m pleased the voices of so many of my constituents and residents across the state were heard and Congress took action.’’
But even with the changes, Spilka said the rates will still be high for many.
“Even with a delay and a cap, it may be a lot for some families,’’ she said.
In addition to delaying the maps, the legislation also includes a provision advocated by US Senator Elizabeth Warren that would compensate homeowners when they successfully appeal their placement into a flood zone.
The legislation would also limit yearly premium increases to an average of 15 percent per year for each of the nine property categories listed by FEMA, and stipulates that no individual policyholder would have to pay an increase of more than 18 percent per year.
It calls on FEMA to strive to reach the goal of most policyholders having a premium of no more than 1 percent of the value of their coverage. The bill also reinstates the flood insurance program’s grandfathering provision so that homes that complied with previous flood maps would not be hit with large increases when new maps show a greater risk of flooding. It also eliminates a provision that required an immediate hike to actuarial levels when ownership of a home changes. The changes in this legislation would be paid for primarily by a $25 surcharge on residential properties and $250 for nonresidential properties or nonprimary residences.
“The fact that they are reinstating the grandfather clause means that people who played by the rules and built their home or business to the specifications required at the time, that is a major benefit,’’ Cantwell said.
Warren and US Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts are original cosponsors of the bill that first passed in the Senate in January.
“I am deeply relieved that the Senate has now passed this important legislation to protect families here in Massachusetts and across the country from unaffordable and unexpected flood insurance rate hikes,” Warren said in a prepared statement. The bill would “require FEMA to ensure its maps are up to date, reliable, and reflect the best available scientific data, and will make sure that families who played by the rules can afford to stay in their homes.”
Meanwhile, the state House of Representatives recently approved a measure sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo that would tie the level of flood insurance that must be purchased to a homeowner’s outstanding mortgage balance, rather than the full replacement value of the home. It would also prohibit mortgage lenders from requiring coverage for the contents of a home or including a deductible of less than $5,000. That legislation now moves to the state Senate.
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.