Senate looks to increase Citizens caps, boost wind mitigation grants

'While the market, I think, is starting to respond to the reforms we’ve made, it’s still a little ways off.'

Another major overhaul to Florida’s property insurance laws isn’t likely this year, but lawmakers are still moving ahead with minor changes aimed at softening the blow of skyrocketing rates many homeowners are facing.

The Senate Banking & Insurance Committee unanimously passed two bills that would allow pricier homes to be covered by Citizens Property Insurance, a state-run company, and to provide $100 million for a grant program to improve homes’ protection against windstorm damage.

Sen. Ed Hooper, a Clearwater Republican, is sponsoring SB 1106, which raises the cap on homes that can be covered by Citizens from $700,000 to $1 million. He said the change to the cap, which was put in place in 2014 and phased in over three years, is needed to keep pace with the increase in home values.

“Today $700,000 is not a mansion, it’s almost the median price of housing,” Hooper said.

The bill, though, would place a surcharge of up to $2,500 on homes above $700,000 to keep Citizens from competing with private carriers. That provision is likely to concern affected residents in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, where there’s an exemption to the existing cap.

“We applaud the objectives of the bill,” said Robert Reyes, a lobbyist for Monroe County who argued the surcharge is unfair to residents in those counties. “There’s just not private sector coverage there to handle those folks.”

The cap was put in place to arrest the spike in policies in Citizens, a state-backed company designed to be the “insurer of last resort” for homeowners who can’t find coverage in the traditional domestic market.

But within the last 18 months, some companies, including Progressive and Nationwide, have begun pulling back from the Florida market and stopped writing new policies. That’s on top of several smaller carriers going bankrupt in light of a sharp increase in reinsurance rates and damaging hurricanes and storms.

Lawmakers have reacted by passing laws to diminish the fees lawyers can receive in property claim disputes and prevent frivolous lawsuits from being filed — something insurers said was key to the hike in rates.

Premiums, though, have continued to rise, distressing homeowners facing bloated bills.

Committee Chair Jim Boyd, a Sarasota Republican, said while he’s wary of making changes that could lead to an increase in Citizens policies, which would mean a greater risk of assessments on all homeowners in the event of a catastrophic storm, the state needs to provide an option when the private market isn’t offering one.

“While the market, I think, is starting to respond to the reforms we’ve made, it’s still a little ways off,” Boyd said.

Another bill that passed through the panel was SB 7028, which puts $100 million toward the My Safe Florida Home Program. That program offers up to $10,000 in matching grant funds to homeowners who make windstorm mitigation improvements, such as roof, windows and door upgrades.

The measure also includes $7 million for the Department of Financial Services to administer the program. The bill would prioritize low- and moderate-income seniors ahead of other homeowners in the line awaiting grants.

In a November Special Session, the Legislature approved $176 million to clear a backlog in the program.

Gray Rohrer


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