Those concerned over the possibility of massive flood insurance rate hikes can breathe a sigh of relief. At least for now.
Congress unveiled a deal struck last week to postpone the rate hikes that started taking effect last month because of the Biggert-Waters Act, a 2012 law that sought to put the cash-strapped National Flood Insurance Program, administrated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on more solid financial footing.
Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) and Greg Meeks (D-Jamaica) laid out the provisions of the compromise bill, called the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, at a press conference in Broad Channel last Thursday.
“The flood insurance premium increases were like a freight train headed right for our communities,” Jeffries said. “This bill would stop the freight train right in its tracks.”
Under the terms of the legislation, drafted by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) — an original sponsor of the Biggert-Waters Act — and supported by both Democrats and Republicans, including Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island), FEMA will be required to do a two-year study that will include remapping coastal areas and flood zones, identifying flood elevations and do an affordability study that will then be reviewed by Congress during the following two years. The last six months of the time frame will be for Congress to analyze the study results to make permanent changes to the NFIP.
Meeks said the Biggert-Waters Act, which was passed only a few months before Hurricane Sandy struck, called for an affordability study, but FEMA never followed through on it. The new bill would force the agency to do one and give it a set timeframe for completion.
If there are no changes to the law, Biggert-Waters would eliminate some subsidies given to homeowners in areas deemed flood-prone, including the Rockaways, Howard Beach and Broad Channel. The result would mean flood insurance premiums going from an average of several hundred dollars a year to, in some cases, as high as $12,000 annually. In Howard Beach specifically, most residents did not need to have flood insurance before Sandy unless they had a mortgage.
For months, civic leaders and state and local officials from neighborhoods near the coast have been calling for Congress to repeal the Biggert-Waters Act. The City Council passed a resolution calling for its repeal last month and hundreds of residents attended a rally Sept. 28 in Broad Channel also calling for a repeal. The rally was one of hundreds held nationwide in flood-prone areas hit by the premium hikes.
Both Jeffries and Meeks said the bill’s wide bipartisan support makes them optimistic that it would pass the House and then the Senate — where it is being sponsored by Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) — even at a time when there is stifling polarization.
Meeks, who sits on the Financial Services Committee, which Waters is ranking member of, said the votes are not there for a repeal of the law, so a restructuring of it with bipartisan support would need to suffice.
“I would love to come here and say we will repeal Biggert-Waters, but we don’t have the votes,” he said. “We have to do something before we have the votes to get it done.”
Jeffries added that most members of Congress don’t oppose Biggert-Waters in principle, but are not happy with how it was implemented.
“We have to make sure the National Flood Insurance Program is sustainable,” he said. “But it was never intended to lead to premium hikes like what we’re seeing.”
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) had some optimism in that regard.
“Maybe we’ll have the votes to repeal Biggert-Waters four years from now,” he said.
There is no specific timeframe for the bill’s passage. Meeks said he expects the Financial Services Committee to hold hearings as early as this month with the bill moving onto the floor of the House by the end of the year. Both congressmen were hopeful to see a vote in the new year.