Citizens to hike insurance rates 56%

Citizens, the state-run insurer of last resort, will have to raise rates dramatically -- again -- to comply with a new law.

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

Published  November 17, 2006

If you have windstorm insurance from Citizens, look out -- yet another rate increase is coming your way.

Rates will jump 55.8 percent early next year for the nearly 247,000 homeowners in South Florida who buy windstorm coverage from Citizens Property Insurance, the state-run insurer of last resort. That's on top of another increase already approved to take effect Jan. 1.

The total hit for many homeowners: rate increases of more than 100 percent. And that's just for next year.

You can thank most of the state lawmakers for this one: The rate hike is necessary to comply with a provision in the insurance bill they passed in May. The bill requires Citizens to set rates high enough to cover all possible losses from the type of catastrophic storm that could hit once in 70 years.

''It's absolutely preposterous. Who can handle this type of thing?'' said Peter Otto, a Bayside resident, who was chased out of Coconut Grove two years ago because of rising property taxes and insurance costs.

''Quite frankly, when this becomes too painful for me, I will just leave,'' he added. ``Atlanta is looking far more attractive now.''

The flat increase of almost 56 percent will also apply to another 149,000 homeowners around the state, outside the tri-county area.

It will be even worse for about 8,000 small businesses in coastal areas around the state who buy hurricane coverage from Citizens. Their rates will soar an unthinkable 513 percent to 678 percent. That means the average premium for many of these businesses will be well over $20,000.

The outsized rate increases aren't a done deal -- just yet.

Next month, Citizens' board of governors needs to give the go-ahead to file the request with state regulators, who could tweak the filing. But since the increases are required for Citizens to comply with state law, it's unlikely they would be rejected outright.

Citizens actuary John Rollins explained Thursday that the increase is due largely to the high cost of reinsurance -- the insurance that helps insurers cover their losses after a disaster. The cost of reinsurance has soared in the past year after eight storms hit the state.

Citizens buys reinsurance not in the private market but from the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, which provides a lower rate. However, the new law requires Citizens to calculate its expenses as if it were buying reinsurance at the going market rate.

Some lawmakers are dismayed.

''This is a ridiculous section of that bill. It should be fixed in a special session,'' said state Sen. Rudy Garcia, the Hialeah Republican who chaired the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee during the past two sessions.

Garcia said he was always worried about the impact of this requirement on homeowners.

However, prospects seem to be dimming fast that legislators will be back to Tallahassee in either early December or January to tackle the state's insurance crisis.

Leaders in both the state House of Representatives and Senate say a consensus is needed before setting a special session, but the call has to be made by Gov. Jeb Bush. And the provision in the new insurance law wasn't addressed in the 50 recommendations put out Wednesday by a state task force Bush appointed to devise fixes for insurance woes.

''This onerous provision alone should be enough to call lawmakers back to Tallahassee,'' said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

Homeowners in Monroe County are the only ones likely to escape. In September, state regulators ordered a rate rollback in the Keys, so this filing would lead to an increase of only 1.3 percent.

In the meantime, people like Joy Marks of Bonaventure are stuck. Marks helped her parents pay their $3,700 Citizens bill recently, because the Davie couple can't afford the upcoming increase. But Marks works with condo conversions, and her business has dropped off dramatically this year as insurance costs and property taxes have risen.

''I can tell you things are getting worse,'' she said.

The increases will also hit condo unit owners and renters in smaller increments. But mobile-home owners will see a 103.7 percent jump.

Audrey Jones can no longer afford insurance for her mobile home in Largo, so she's already going without it this year. ''I can't believe lawmakers are allowing this to happen,'' she said.

But rather than fretting about her fate if a storm hits, she's taking a more philosophical approach.

'I'm reduced to sitting here and saying, `Dear God, if you want the house, take it. But, please, don't hurt me.' ''