A picture of Senator Heidi Heitkamp
Heidi H.
Democrat ND

About Sen. Heidi
  • Executive Session

    by Senator Heidi Heitkamp

    Posted on 2013-12-11

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    HEITKAMP. Madam President, we are here today to talk about something that is critically important to very many middle-class families who enjoy home ownership across the country, and business ownership, and it is the truly bipartisan Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, which seeks to address the recent flood insurance rate escalations across the country.

    This bill is measured, it is reasonable, and it allows for FEMA to complete a study on flood insurance affordability and provides Congress with assurance about FEMA's ability to accurately determine flood risk before implementing pieces of the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act. I think it is true in many cases that the Congress has good intentions. They passed the Biggert-Waters provisions, they passed the act, but implementation has been a nightmare. I don't think we are exaggerating in saying it has been a nightmare for very many of our community members, especially across the coastal areas. I think it is important that I speak as someone from a Plains State who has told people repeatedly that flood insurance is a huge impediment to success and to home ownership in North Dakota, in very many of my communities.

    I wish to mention some of the provisions of the bill. The bill would delay a rate increase for the following properties: primary, non- repetitive loss residences that were grandfathered; all properties sold after July 6, 2012; and all property that purchased a new policy after that date. It is important that the folks out there who have already gotten these tremendous flood insurance bills understand that our effort is to make this bill retroactive to October 1 of this year so that those rate increases that were mandated by that date don't take effect.

    The basement provision is something we have spent a lot of time educating other Members about. It is a provision that affects very many communities across the country, including 14 in North Dakota, where some of our largest communities have flood-proof basements. They have lived by the rules and they have done all that they should do, so they have been granted an exemption from flood insurance, taking a look at where the foundation is as opposed to where the basement floor is when they determine vulnerability. That basement exemption is in danger of being repealed by FEMA, and we want to make sure that whatever we do recognizes that when those homeowners have played by the rules, have done what is right and flood-proofed their basements, it is recognized in a flood insurance program.

    Generally speaking, I came to the Senate to fight for North Dakotans. I have to imagine most of the Senators are here because they want to fight for the people of their States. A major way to do that is to protect American families and their homes and stop putting undue pressure on them. It is a simple idea, but it is proving much harder to implement than I would like.

    Flooding is a reality far too often in North Dakota, and there are many other communities across the country that see the same kind of plains flooding. Just in the past few years we have seen communities such as Fargo, Minot, Grafton, and others impacted by severe flooding that has destroyed homes and businesses.

    This fall flood insurance rates went up for millions of families. This puts families at risk. So many of them have to struggle to pay for flood insurance or they have to walk away, literally walk away from their investment in their home.

    Biggert-Waters is having an immediate impact on homeowners in my State. I will give one example. There is a woman I know from Grafton, ND, named Alison Skari who, with her husband Kyle, purchased a home in that small community about a year ago. At the time, the flood insurance rate was $901 for $100,000 worth of coverage. But when the policy recently came up for renewal, their flood insurance skyrocketed to more than $4,200 a year. Let me repeat those statistics. Their flood insurance cost when they bought their home was at $901. Today their bill is $4,200--a 375-percent increase for the same amount of coverage. In an email to me, Allison expressed a desire to raise her children in Grafton, but unfortunately they no longer can afford their home--not with these new rates. She said had she and her husband known about these rates when they bought their home, they would never have purchased their home.

    This story reinforces that we need to take a new look. We need to take a new look at this Flood Insurance Program. We need to take a new look at affordability of home ownership.

    Everybody knows that in the last--certainly since 2008 we have seen a slow recovery in home ownership. We have tried to make sure people can realize the American dream, and a big part of that is, in fact, the owning of their own home. Yet here we are in the Congress making it virtually impossible for middle-class families to buy and live in and enjoy their homes. That was never the intention of the Biggert-Waters provision. The intention was to bring the Flood Insurance Program to a more reasonable, market-based evaluation.

    [[Page S8618]] But I don't think anyone in this body anticipated these dramatic and very devastating increases.

    I believe we absolutely need to do something to send a message that we in this body are listening to the middle class. We are listening to the middle class. When every person who runs for office--in their campaign, I bet there isn't one person in this body who didn't say: I am there to help protect the middle class. This is our opportunity, in a bipartisan way, to step up and protect the middle class and to tell people that grasp of home ownership, that piece of the American dream is within their reach, and it is within their reach because we aren't doing devastating things here in Washington, DC.

    I thank my great friend from Louisiana. As a new Member, I preside frequently on the floor of the Senate, and I think that if there has been a canary on this issue, that early bellwether whom we look to and who said we are going to have problems, it was Senator Mary Landrieu, who alerted this body from the very beginning, who knew these increases were coming and so ably advanced her leadership on this issue. I applaud her for that. I applaud Senator Menendez and Senator Schumer and so many people on the other side who have worked with us to try to develop a bill that truly has bipartisan support. I urge this body to send a very important holiday present, a Christmas present to the middle class of America by passing this reform bill, by delaying these increases and making that dream of home ownership possible in the future.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Louisiana.

    Ms. LANDRIEU. Madam President, I thank the Senator from North Dakota for her very kind and very generous comments. She underestimates her own tremendous leadership skills. Arriving here as a new Member, she jumped right into this issue. She didn't need a lot of prep work. She understands her State. She understands basements, which we don't have in Louisiana because if we dig down even a few inches, we will hit water. So I had to become very well educated by my good friends, the Senators from New York, New Jersey, and North Dakota, about true basements. It just goes to show that when we work together, we can come up with good legislation that can really help our people, give them relief, being in partnership with them, helping them to keep and strengthen the equity in their homes and businesses as well as do right by the taxpayer. So I thank the Senator very much for her kind comments.

    I wish to through the Chair recognize the Senator from New York, who has been an absolutely outstanding advocate for the people of the east coast--particularly New York but the entire east coast in the aftermath of Sandy. It was so helpful to that region to bring them the relief they needed, which has worked, and I understand it is still going on and we have to do more. But if we don't fix this flood insurance issue, which, in fact, was a manmade disaster, it is going to make the natural disaster of Sandy that much worse.

    I wish to ask Senator Schumer if he has any comments to add to what has already been said.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from New York.

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