TALLAHASSEE -- Patricia Temple’s annual insurance bill soared by more than $2,100 after an inspector knocked on her door earlier this year. The bill came from Citizens Property Insurance Corp., and the inspector was one of thousands fanning the state on Citizens’ behalf, often with sudden and jarring results for homeowners.
The state-run insurer is using a massive home inspection program — along with dozens of coverage cutbacks and policy changes — in an aggressive campaign to bolster its bottom line and reduce its level of risk. The campaign — which has intensified at the urging of Gov. Rick Scott — has already cost homeowners hundreds of millions of dollars. And the pocketbook impact could easily reach the billions as more and more homeowners are affected.
For Temple, a 79-year-old retired librarian who lives alone on a fixed income, the premium hike is taking a large bite out of her limited budget.
“I was shocked and I called my agent,” she said from her three-bedroom home in Coral Gables. “I’ve never had an insurance claim on anything.”
Her insurance premium jumped from $4,882 to $7,028.
She’s not alone.
Temple is one of hundreds of thousands of Floridians who have already been slammed by Citizens’ reinspections and other cost-hiking measures. As the state-run insurer intensifies its plans to raise rates and reduce what it covers, the impact on Florida’s fragile housing market and broader economy is being felt across the state.
A Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau series will look at the effect of Citizens’ reinspections and price hikes on homeowners, and the rocky relationship between Citizens’ board of directors and the Legislature.
Executives at Citizens say the company is in a bind, and has little choice but to raise its rates. It was created 10 years ago to be a safe haven — the so-called “insurer of last resort”— but it has ballooned to become the state’s largest insurer, with about 1.4 million policies. Most of its risk is concentrated in South Florida and the Tampa Bay area, hazard-prone regions where many homeowners cannot find coverage in the private market. Its actions — including rate increases — affect the entire insurance market, impacting the cost of housing for nearly every Floridian, including those with private insurers.
“Citizens is too big,” Scott has said repeatedly, citing numbers that paint Citizens as a huge potential financial liability for the state. At a Cabinet meeting last year, Scott told Citizens executives to shrink the company, and to do so quickly.
Citizens’ board has responded, vowing to help Florida avoid the “hurricane taxes” that would be levied on most consumers if a major storm were to slam the state’s highly developed coastline, draining Citizens’ resources.
“There are things we have to do to make Citizens a strong safety net and not a hammock,” said board member John Rollins, during a meeting last year.
He went on to acknowledge: “Some of it will be painful.”
Critics, and a growing crop of litigants, say Citizens is pushing the bounds of what’s moral — and what’s legal — as it attempts to slim down. Homeowners in Pasco County filed a lawsuit this year claiming the insurer used a fraudulent software program to inflate the replacement cost of their homes, thus increasing their premiums. South Florida homeowners have sued Citizens over the inspection program, calling it a scheme to raise rates. Citizens has denied both allegations.