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New tax breaks, grants and assistance: Pa. task force makes recommendations on flood insurance

The Schuylkill River exceeds its bank in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area.
Matt Rourke
/
AP
The Schuylkill River exceeds its bank in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 in the aftermath of downpours and high winds from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hit the area.

Damage from flooding is expected to get worse in Pennsylvania as a result of human-caused climate change. But less than 2% of insured properties in the state carry flood insurance, an important tool for recovery after the waters recede.

The problem is often cost. Families pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year on top of their regular homeowners insurance, and state officials want to change that.

Now, Pennsylvania has a roadmap for actions it could take to make flood insurance more accessible and more affordable. A report published by a task force earlier this month recommends new positions in state government, expanded grants and new tax breaks.

“We’re seeing, especially now with climate change, with increasing frequency very severe storm events,” said state Sen. Steven Santarsiero, a Democrat representing Bucks County who sat on the Flood Insurance Premium Assistance Task Force. “Unless we want to see neighborhoods become ghost towns, [flood insurance affordability] is a real problem.”

The group of lawmakers and state officials formed last year to study ways to lower flood insurance premiums in Pennsylvania, incentivize flood mitigation efforts at the local level, increase awareness of flood risk and get more Pennsylvanians covered by flood insurance.

The task force found that less than 2% of insured homes in Pennsylvania include flood coverage. Task force members heard from professionals in the industry that one of the biggest barriers to flood insurance coverage is the cost.

Santarsiero said he started hearing from constituents as early as 2014 that they were finding it increasingly difficult to afford flood insurance.

“That situation has not gotten any better in those last 10 years,” he said.

Monday’s report recommends Pennsylvania put in place stronger disclosure requirements so homebuyers know whether they’ll need flood insurance before buying a property, consider flood resilience when crafting its building code and create new state tax deductions for flood insurance payments and tax credits for home renovations that lower flood risk.

“We want to encourage people to do what they need to do to make their homes more resilient,” Santarsiero said.

The report also recommends the creation of a new state office that would help municipalities enroll in a FEMA program known as the Community Rating System, which rewards municipalities for flood mitigation and communication efforts with flood insurance discounts for residents.

Across the country, more than 1,500 municipalities earn discounts for their residents through the program. Only two dozen municipalities in Pennsylvania participate.

The task force heard a “common frustration with the complexity, length of time, and extensive resources necessary” to enroll in the program, according to the report.

It also recommends the state offer more grants to municipalities to help them fund floodplain management activities that would allow them to join the Community Rating System, maintain participation or earn deeper discounts for residents.

State Rep. Dave Zimmerman, a Republican representing parts of Lancaster and Berks counties who sat on the task force, said he’d like to see municipalities have the resources to elevate or even buy out flood-prone properties.

“If we’re going to have this ongoing flooding, and insurance fixing it, and then flooding again — at some point if we don’t raise up these properties a little bit, maybe they need to be just taken away,” he said.

Most flood insurance in the U.S. is provided by FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, but Pennsylvania’s private market has been expanding, with the number of private flood insurance policies in the state growing more than ten-fold between 2016 and 2023, according to the task force report.

State Sen. Lisa Baker, a Republican whose district includes part of Luzerne County — the county in Pennsylvania with the most federal flood insurance policies, according to FEMA data — sat on the taskforce. She noted in a press release Monday that in some states, homeowners insurance companies have pulled out or restricted coverage.

“The frequency of high damage events and the rising costs of recovery efforts are roiling insurance markets,” she said. “This is a crucial juncture for us to consider some fundamental changes before our situation deteriorates into crisis.”

Several of the recommendations would require the General Assembly pass new legislation. Sen. Santarsiero said he hopes to leverage the participation of both Republicans and Democrats on the task force to garner bipartisan support for any such bills.

“We’ve agreed that we want to work together,” Rep. Zimmerman said.

State Rep. Perry Warren, whose district includes Upper Makefield where flash flooding killed seven people last summer, said in a statement he looks forward to supporting legislation that would implement the group’s recommendations.

Sophia Schmidt | WHYY