tampabay.com

State insurer has a fight on its hands

Homeowners across the state are banding together to protest Citizens and the high cost of property insurance.

By TOM ZUCCO
Published May 24, 2006


They don't take over government offices or wave banners on street corners, and there are no plans to publicly burn their Citizens Property Insurance policies. But that may be next.

For the first time since Hurricane Andrew struck Florida in 1992, homeowners are banding together around the state, either through Web sites or through condo/homeowners associations, and protesting the soaring cost of property insurance.

Public Enemy No. 1 appears to be Citizens Property, the state-run insurer of last resort, which has swelled with high-cost policies dumped by private insurers who are cutting back or fleeing the market entirely.

People who have never before been involved in any kind of organized protests are finding themselves collecting petitions and joining groups whose sole aim is to present a united front to government leaders.

And some of those political leaders are starting to notice. Anti-Citizens Property groups, including one in Port Richey and one in Monroe County, are "popping up everywhere,'' said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

"This was totally unexpected,'' Fasano added, "and it is surprising everyone.''

One group emerged after residents of the Green Dolphin condominiums in Tarpon Springs learned in January that Allstate was dropping their policy. When they found out that Citizens was the only insurer that would cover them - and that their yearly premium would jump from $22,000 to $69,000 for 84 units - panic set in.

The residents, most of whom are elderly and have limited incomes, have to come up with an additional $500 per unit by the end of this month to cover the cost.

"At first, I was very upset,'' said Dale Piskie, a 64-year-old widow who has lived at Green Dolphin since 1991. "Where was I getting this money? Then I got mad. I had to do something.''

What she did was write a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush and local government officials asking for help. Then she went door-to-door and got nearly 300 residents to sign it.

"They government officials aren't going to listen to just me,'' said Piskie. "I'd love to be able to get other associations to do the same thing, so something gets done.

"It isn't about what Citizens is doing. It's about what we need to do, and 300 voices is louder than one.

"We're fighting for our lives here.''

In western Pasco County, which has been hit particularly hard by rate increases because of the added burden of sinkhole risks, residents took to the Internet. The Web site Homeowners Against Citizens Insurance (web.tampabay.rr.com/hac/) was started in March by Barbara Polsky after a group of about 100 Pasco residents traveled to Tallahassee to protest insurance rates.

The site now has about 300 members and serves as a repository of information relating to the property insurance market. It's also a place to vent.

"One person doesn't get their voice heard,'' Polsky said. "We're losing our houses, everything we worked for. Now maybe people will start to listen.

"We're trying to take this statewide.''

Polsky, 64, saw the insurance on her 1,500-square-foot Port Richey home rise from $453 in 2002 to about $3,000 today. As her insurance rises, so do her mortgage payments.

When she and her husband bought their home in 2002, their mortgage payment was $550 a month. This year, it's $853.

"Next year, we figure it will be at least $1,200, and we can't handle that,'' said Polsky, who is disabled. "My husband brings home $820 a week. We'll have to leave, either face foreclosure or sell under market value.''

"I want Citizens dissolved,'' she said. "This is not working.''

Like most of the new activists, Polsky was never involved in any form of protest until now. "I always thought those people were stupid,'' she said.

Not any more.

"My husband and I put $35,000 down, everything we had, on this house,'' she said. "And we stand to lose it all. If that's not enough to infuriate you, something's wrong.''

Some days, she says, she's so busy working on the Web site she doesn't even get her dishes done. "But,'' she said, "I wanted to at least do something.''

Fasano, the state senator, thinks at least some of the anger grew out of what happened, or didn't happen, in the recent legislative session.

"I don't think we went far enough,'' said Fasano, who voted against the insurance package passed by the Legislature. "We should have paid off the entire deficit and overhauled Citizens.''

What people such as Piskie and Polsky are doing is a reaction to the feeling of being ignored by government, Fasano said, with more groups like theirs likely to emerge.

And it's not just homeowners who are speaking out. "You know who's contacting me now?'' Fasano asked. "Real estate agents, mortgage brokers, bankers and developers. They're not happy campers.''

The lack of affordable insurance is hitting the real estate market hard, Fasano said, leading to a ripple effect that touches a growing number of businesses, even those outside the market. "It isn't a bad idea,'' Fasano said, "to hold a special session of the Legislature to really address this even farther.''

The insurance industry blames eight hurricanes in the past two years that caused about $39-billion in insured losses.

And for its part, Citizens maintains it is not the bad guy. By law, Citizens has to charge the state's highest rates to avoid competing with private insurers and truly remain the "last resort.''

Most of Citizens' policies are in high risk areas where no other company would provide coverage.

Unlike private insurers, Citizens is a nonprofit corporation that does not reward its executives with huge salaries and bonuses.

And it has to play by the rules the state has set up. After Andrew, the state froze rates and issued a moratorium on policy cancellations. A private insurer could not drop more than 10 percent of its policyholders in a given county in a year.

Those laws, unpopular with the private insurance industry, have since expired.

But at least, Citizens officials say, someone is out there writing new homeowners policies.

"The good news is the Legislature has created a way for Floridians to have coverage where the private market doesn't provide it,'' said Citizens spokesman Justin Glover.

"If it weren't for Citizens, 850,000 homeowners would have nowhere to turn for insurance.''

That, however, is of small consolation to struggling property owners such as Dale Piskie.

"It's really sad,'' she said. "I thought I could stay here the rest of my life.''

Tom Zucco can be reached at zucco@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8247.