Storm grants baffle homeowners
Matching money to bolster homes comes up short. State officials say they'll fix "confusion."
By Ivan Penn, Times staff writer
Published March 20, 2007
When does half of $10,000 not equal $5,000?
Answer: when the state of Florida is doing the math.
Through the My Safe Florida Home program, the state promised a free home inspection and dollar-for-dollar matching grants of up to $5,000 to make improvements to strengthen homes against hurricanes.
But in letters sent the last several weeks to homeowners detailing grant awards, the numbers have fallen short of the $5,000 match required in state law.
On Monday, the Department of Financial Services, which runs the program, said homeowners will receive a dollar-for-dollar match up to $5,000 for approved work.
Then the St. Petersburg Times faxed the department a copy of one of its own grant letters, which showed considerably less than a dollar-for-dollar match.
After reading what they wrote, department officials said they would send e-mails to grant letter recipients today to correct the "confusion." Letters will follow on Friday.
"They've gotten a few phone calls from consumers who may have been confused," department spokeswoman Tara Klimek said on behalf of program coordinator Tami Torres. "They had already recognized over there that they weren't as clear as they could have been, so they're taking steps to correct that."
The confusion over the grant awards is the latest setback for My Safe Florida Home.
The Legislature created the program in May in response to the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, which devastated communities and sent insurance costs skyrocketing.
But the program, funded with $250-million in state money and at least part of a $100-million federal grant, has sputtered along for almost a year to the chagrin of homeowners and some government officials.
Some 14,000 homes have been inspected, but with just over two months before hurricane season starts, no one has received money through the grant program.
Moreover, the program came under fire after it was revealed in January that a contract for its pilot phase improperly escalated from $457,000 to almost $3-million without public notice or bids.
Diane Hodson and her husband, Paul Tower, got a free inspection of their St. Petersburg home. The state recommended additional window and door protection that would cost $9,925.
The couple figured that with the matching grant, they would pay half, or $4,962.50. But in its grant award letter to the couple, the state said it would pay $1,940.
The second state estimate for window and door protection was for a stronger fix at a cost of $22,650. Hodson and Tower figured that meant they would pay $17,650 and the state would pay $5,000. But the state said the maximum grant amount for the job would be $3,975.
"It doesn't match if you take half of what the state says it will cost and then look at the items they have on the sheet," Hodson said. "... It's a mess."
Klimek, the financial services spokeswoman, said the grant figures should not have been stated as "maximums" but merely as estimates.
Hodson, a lawyer with four advanced degrees, said she had a hard time making sense of the flow of documents the state sent.
First came her inspection report with some 15 pages of information.
"I let it set there on my dining room table for a week to 10 days," Hodson said.
When she finally reviewed the paperwork, she found the list of estimates for the recommended improvements to her home. And there was a 10-point checklist she had to follow, along with an application to submit for the grant.
After mailing in the grant application, she received a letter back stating that she was approved for a grant but that there were limits on how much the grant money would cover for each improvement.
Along with the grant limits was a statement:
"The actual amount of grant funds that will be disbursed to Homeowner will be the lesser of: a $,5000; (b) The sum of the individual 'Maximum Grant' amounts for completed Recommended Improvements; (c) the amount the Homeowner actually pays a Participating Contractor for completion of Recommended Improvements; (d) Half the total charge by the Participating Contractor for the Recommended improvements completed."
Hodson was baffled.
"I don't think a lot of people are going to be able to deal with this," she said. "I know a lot of old people. This is just going to be way beyond them."
Anne Blick of Pinellas Park has all but given up after she had her home inspected and received her inspection report.
"I'm 72 years old with a high school education," said Blick, who said she won't seek a grant. "I'm not even going through that thing. They could not make it more difficult."
Robert Remer, 57, of Seffner said he too is likely to abandon use of his My Safe Florida Home grant because of the complicated reports and costs that he did not expect.
"It is confusing," Remer said. "It's just too much of a hassle and the prices have gotten too high. ... I'm not going to use the state plan at all at this point."
Although hundreds have been approved for the grants, no one will receive any money until after the work on their home is complete.
The state is inspecting and offering free improvements for low-income residents. The nonprofit Volunteer Florida Foundation oversees that effort through use of a dozen other nonprofits.
Hodson said she's trying to figure out what she will do through the program. She said she is going to work to understand the documents enough so that she gets what the state promised.
"I'll wade my way through and I'll get my $5,000 one way or another," Hodson said. "But I'm just worried about all the other people. ... This is not manageable for 90 percent of the people."
Ivan Penn covers consumer affairs issues. He can be reached at email@example.com or (727)892-2332.
The law says:
Under the My Safe Florida Home program, Florida law requires that "all grants must be matched on a dollar-for-dollar basis for a total of $10,000 for the mitigation project with the state's contribution not to exceed $5,000."