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Few see benefits of hyped program
Some who first applied for My Safe Florida Home waited, then gave up. And now it's changed.
By IVAN PENN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 2, 2007
With much fanfare, the state created the My Safe Florida Home program more than a year ago.
It developed at a snail's pace, left tens of thousands of homeowners on a waiting list for almost a year and began operating under an illegally awarded contract.
This past spring, lawmakers moved to revamp the program, mandating 400,000 free home inspections over the next two years while reducing the benefits for the program they realized was too ambitious.
But the results of the state's changes have created fresh troubles:
-Less than 10 percent of homeowners who have applied for My Safe Florida Home have qualified for the program's matching grant to make improvements.
-The rule changes, which focus benefits on those in vulnerable coastal communities and on low-income homeowners, have cut out many Floridians from the program.
-Even among those who received the free home inspections, some homeowners say it simply isn't worth the effort anymore because the early delays in the program, and the Legislature's changes have disqualified them for the $5,000 grant the state promised.
Amy Ash, 65, of Tarpon Springs, sat on the program's waiting list for almost a year. It took so long to get through the process that the value of her house increased, and now it's above the new eligibility limits for receiving a grant.
"It's not what we thought it was going to be," Ash said. "Once they had the program for awhile, they realized they don't want to give us $5,000."
Gary Porter, of GLP's Home and Mold Inspections LLC and a My Safe Florida Home inspector, said owners of homes he has been assigned to inspect have been leery about the program and some have even given up on it.
"When I called, they had forgotten about it," Porter said of homeowners from the program's waiting list. "One person was even deceased. The state was supposed to help them out, but those dreams all went away."
The Department of Financial Services, which runs the My Safe Florida Home program, down-plays the concerns and instead touts its successes.
About 106,000 homeowners have applied for the program, and about 87,000 of them have received home inspections.
"We are very proud of the number of Floridians we have been able to help since the program restarted in April," said Tara Klimek, a department spokeswoman. "We are working to achieve our target goal of 400,000 free wind inspections before June 2009 and will achieve that goal at our current pace."
Through My Safe Florida Home, the state offers free home inspections and matching grants up to $5,000 to qualified homeowners.
The program was touted a year ago by then-Gov. Jeb Bush and then-Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher as a key tool in protecting homes against hurricanes by helping Floridians purchase improvements that would guard their homes in a storm.
One of the program's major selling points was that by making the improvements, homes would be safer and insurance costs lower.
But now My Safe Florida Home has turned into more of an inspection program than an effort to strengthen homes against hurricanes.
So far, 890 homeowners have had work completed and received $2.8-million in grant assistance checks from the state. That's less than 1 percent of all of those who have applied.
Fewer than 10 percent of the 106,000 applicants about 8,700 have qualified for grant assistance.
Despite the state's touting of a growing number of applicants, Porter, the home inspector, said that since the initial wave of 65,000 applicants a year ago, enthusiasm for the program appears to be waning.
"They're saying they don't have any more business in this area," he said of Orange County. In other areas, there have been opportunities for "re-inspections" to ensure quality but little in the way of new work.
Part of the problem is that Orange and almost half of the state's 67 counties were cut out of grant eligibility during the spring legislative session. The original plan was to make the grant program available statewide.
The Legislature's changes restricted grant eligibility to homes in the state's wind-borne debris region, which includes counties along the coastline.
Among those counties no longer eligible for grants is Polk, which suffered a devastating hit from Hurricane Charley in 2004.
Other restrictions include a valid homestead exemption, a building permit application for initial construction made before March 1, 2002, and an insured value of no more than $300,000.
Before the Legislature's action, homes needed to have an insured value of no more than $500,000.
A year ago, Ash was within the eligibility requirements for a grant. She applied when the program began last summer.
But Ash was not among the 14,000 homeowners selected for the initial phase, which ended Nov. 30. She did not receive her inspection until June 13 - more than a month after the Legislature changed the rules.
During the last 12 months, Ash's insured value rose from $300,000 to $321,000.
Because it was the state's fault that the program moved slowly, Ash, a retiree, believes she still should have received a grant.
"We followed all their rules," Ash said. "They should grandfather us in."
Ash said a lawyer told her to take the state to small claims court to get the grant she thought she would get to help with the almost $20,000 in hurricane strengthening improvements recommended in her inspection report.
Like Ash, Stephanie Brown, 48, of Clearwater thought she would finally get her grant after waiting a year. But she too was disqualified by the new maximum value of the home.
"It's just frustrating," Brown said. "The consumer is told one thing, and then they change it."
Homes inspected before May 1 are allowed to use the $5,000 matching grant for a range of improvements, including bracing gable-ends in roof framing; upgrading exterior wall opening protections (such as installing hurricane-rated window shutters); and upgrading exterior doors (such as replacing a standard garage door with a hurricane-rated garage door).
But for homes inspected after May 1, grant funds must be used only for opening protections, which includes windows, skylights, gable vents, exterior doors and garage doors, and the bracing of gable ends.
"This would have been a great program," Brown said. "I think the bottom line is the state has only a certain amount of money."
Klimek, the Department of Financial Services spokeswoman, said the agency is bound by the changes made by the Legislature, regardless of funding availability.
"What we've been urging people to do is contact their local legislators," she said.
Unless lawmakers change the guidelines again, Klimek said, there's nothing the department can do for homeowners who are no longer eligible.