Some Fed Programs Help Pay to Elevate Homes


MIAMI – After storm surge from Hurricane Idalia flooded homes in Tampa Bay and Florida’s Big Bend region, state officials are asking homeowners to tap into a federal program to help pay to elevate homes.

“It is one of the best programs that we have in our toolkit,” Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie told reporters last week. “We’re going to try to make the mitigation fund bankrupt.”

The obscure program has some major caveats, however.

The program is confusing, and the process can take years. And because homeowners have to pay the cost up front, only people who can afford to spend six figures elevating their home could tap into it.

For those reasons, relatively few Floridians have had their homes elevated through the various federal programs.

Here’s how the programs work:

What does the federal government offer?

There are several federal programs that offer money to elevate a home or business. Guthrie was referring to the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which is overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and is available after disasters declared by the president. Hurricanes Idalia and Ian are two such disasters.

There are other programs that are available each year, however, and they all work more or less the same: They assign money to state and local governments to protect homes and businesses from future flooding.

The money could go toward building levees or flood walls, drainage projects or elevating homes and businesses. The federal government foots up to 100% of the bill, depending on the program, with the property owner paying the rest.

Who’s eligible?

Property owners who meet a special set of circumstances are eligible.

Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funding is only available after a president declares a disaster, and only in communities that have FEMA-approved Hazard Mitigation Plans (which are most communities).

Another program, FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance, is much more common and available each year. It also only applies to communities with approved hazard plans, and only to properties that are insured through the National Flood Insurance Program.

Communities can have their own specific requirements for Flood Mitigation Assistance programs, too.

For St. Petersburg, for example, the property must have experienced either:

  • Repetitive losses, defined as two or more claims of more than $1,000 paid by the National Flood Insurance Program within any 10-year period since 1978
  • Or severe repetitive losses, defined as four or more claims of more than $5,000 and cumulative claims of more than $20,000, or at least two claims that cumulatively exceed the building’s value

How do you apply?

Property owners must ask their city or county emergency managers, who would apply through the state on their behalf. The state then sends the proposal to FEMA, which can reject or approve it, or approve part of the funding.

If that sounds convoluted, that’s because it is.

Property owners have to get cost estimates, a contractor and meet other local requirements before their local government applies on their behalf. From there, the local government would apply to the state, and the state would apply to FEMA. The property owner does not interact with FEMA at any point.

“None of it’s a simple process,” said Hannah Rebholz, flood plain coordinator for the City of St. Petersburg. Residents are encouraged to reach out for help.

How much money is available?

Elevating a home or business can cost $200,000 or more, depending on the size and type of the property and how high it needs to be elevated.

When a Jacksonville home that was repeatedly flooded was approved to be elevated eight feet, it cost $503,671, with FEMA paying 90% of the tab, the Florida Times-Union reported in 2012.

FEMA paid $5 million to raise 27 flood-prone homes along the Treasure Coast and paid all of the costs for eight of them, TC Palm reported in 2018.

For the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, FEMA covers 75% of the cost, with the property owner usually responsible for covering the rest.

To help cover the cost, FEMA also makes up to $30,000 in federal dollars available to property owners, if they meet certain conditions:

  • The property was recently damaged by a flood
  • It’s insured through the National Flood Insurance Program
  • And it’s required to be elevated to meet local building requirements

It’s unclear how much federal money to elevate homes will be made after Idalia, as the program funding is based on damage assessments that haven’t yet been completed.

How long does the program take?

Years. Going through the local approval process can take 18 months. FEMA approval can take more than a year.

Once approved, the property owner has 36 months to finish construction.

“It can be a couple of years before you even know if you’ve been accepted,” said Lisa Foster, floodplain manager for Pinellas County.

Is there a catch?

Yes, and it’s a big one. The programs reimburse the property owners, so the property owners have to foot the entire bill in advance.

They also have to be able to pay the portion that FEMA doesn’t cover.

That’s naturally out of reach for most homeowners, and it’s led to accusations that the programs are biased in favor of white or wealthy communities. A 2022 Politico analysis found that in 12 of the 18 states that have received nearly all the elevation funding, more than half of the FEMA elevation money has gone to communities that are wealthy or almost entirely white.

How many Floridians have used this program?

Not many. Since 1995, 39 properties in Florida have been elevated under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which is available after disasters, according to FEMA data. Nearly all were residential homes.

About 240 other properties have been elevated through other federal grants since 1995, according to the data.

Pinellas and Pasco counties together make up 104 of the 277 homes that have been elevated, according to the data. Only one home has been elevated in Miami-Dade County, and just two in Broward County.

© 2023 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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