Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Cynthia Newton outside her North Shoreview home for which she is federally mandated to carry costly flood insurance.
Newton is in the process of remodeling her kitchen.
A big backyard, fruit trees, hardwood floors, brick walkway, a friendly neighborhood and visions of raising a family first attracted Cynthia Newton to buy her home in the North Shoreview neighborhood of San Mateo in 1996.
She painted it yellow, is remodeling her kitchen and continues to turn her home into one she adores.
But in 2001, her idyllic home on the 200 block of Huron Avenue became subject to something she never would have imagined — federally mandated flood insurance.
When the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued its new Flood Insurance Rate Map, she and thousands of homeowners in the northwest corner of San Mateo and next to the San Francisco Bay were identified as susceptible to a 100-year flood. The 100-year flood is a FEMA standard for areas where there is a 1 percent chance of a major flood every year. No one can recall any major flooding in the area and the designation more than a decade ago shocked the city and those in the new flood zone. Getting nearly 10,000 residences off the flood map has cost millions through expensive public works projects. Now the city is setting its sights on the last affected area — North Shoreview and portions of North Central San Mateo.
In the meantime, Newton and other homeowners with federally backed mortgages contend with costly flood insurance rates that can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars a year.
“We were all pretty much in shock,” Newton said. “I don’t understand why they’re focusing on floods only when every area in this country is subject to some kind of natural disaster. And I think we, in our area, are probably prone to more earthquakes than floods. I don’t know why every homeowner in the country doesn’t have to pay something for tornadoes, hurricanes, floods; there’s just so many disasters that do, and can happen.”
She bought insurance prior to the map’s release and was grandfathered in at about $300 a year. But her rates have increased over the years; she paid $1,200 last year and expects it to increase again, Newton said.
For those who bought their homes in recent years, many were unexpectedly hit with estimates nearing $10,000 per year.
Her story is one of many in the area who are considered at risk and required to carry flood protection and reduce the burden of claims paid through the agency’s National Flood Insurance Program, according to FEMA officials.
“There is a significant risk for residents of San Mateo County … [Flood risk is] based on a number of factors: rainfall, river-flow and tidal surge data, topography, flood-control measures and changes due to building and development. Anywhere it rains, it can flood and floods are the nation’s most common and costly disaster,” according to FEMA.
But Newton said she is hopeful as the city is initiating efforts to remove the North Shoreview and North Central neighborhoods out of the flood zone.
Time and money
It is a lengthy and costly process that will involve city infrastructure improvements at two pump stations and along the Coyote Point Bayfront levees, estimated to cost $22.35 million in 2009 and 2010, said Susanna Chan, deputy director of the San Mateo Public Works Department.
“For North Shoreview, they are subject to tidal flooding from the Bay and also the water that gets trapped by the levee that’s supposed to be pumped by stations,” Chan said. “Our pump stations currently, the capacity is not sufficient to handle a 100-year storm.”
It’s a procedure with which San Mateo became familiar in 2003 when it began to remove the Shoreview neighborhood to the south from the flood map. Funding came from multiple sources including the affected homeowners raising $7.5 million through an assessment district in which each agreed to pay about $75 per year for up to 20 years.
The multi-million dollar Shoreview effort culminated in 2012 and removed nearly 8,000 residences from the high-risk flood zone; but for another 1,200 homeowners like Newton, little changed.
But the laws have changed; the Biggert-Waters Act of 2012 threatened grandfathered rates and required many to obtain elevation certificates, while the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014 limits annual premium increases.
The City Council listed this project as a priority; still, it will take several years before the majority of the homeowners are no longer considered at risk.
High insurance rates getting higher
For some, their FEMA experience spans more than a decade, but for newer homeowners, their struggles and rates have increased exponentially in a matter of months.
Anna Solorzano lives on the 800 block of North Idaho Street in the North Central neighborhood. While closing escrow in 2012, Solorzano said she learned her future included rising flood insurance payments. Her shock didn’t end there, this year she paid $1,000 for an elevation certificate and the news it brought was infuriating — her property was in the flood zone by mere inches, Solorzano said.
“I questioned it over and over again … but I was at the mercy really of FEMA and I still am. It’s whatever they designate, it’s whatever they determine,” Solorzano said. “It’s been nerve-racking because you don’t know what you’re dealing with and as you start to go through these layers and still keep hitting walls, you come to the conclusion it’s a bigger monster; it’s out of your control.”
FEMA rates inevitably increase. Although her first annual payment was $2,500, she shopped around in 2013 and found a cheaper $1,800 annual plan. But this year’s annual quotes jumped to $4,600 to $7,200 to $9,600 before her lender found a $2,800 plan, Solorzano said.
Shopping around helped Dave and Dana Jordan save a bit on flood insurance for their home and small cottage on the 1400 block of Monte Diablo Avenue in North Shoreview. But they still scrambled to cough up more than $6,000 in January for this year’s payment, Dana Jordan said.
They were first-time homebuyers in a competitive market so when they came upon their property in late 2012, they jumped at the chance to move in, Dave Jordan said.
“It’s one of those neighborhoods where a lot of young couples are moving in, people are fixing up their houses. It’s nice, it’s right near the Bay trail which is wonderful … it’s one of the reasons we purchased the home,” Dave Jordan said. “We got lucky, we got in. From then everything was great and then with the flood insurance situation, that was a major down point in the experience.”
They knew they’d be in the Flood Insurance Rate Map but, after closing escrow and moving in, reality hit, Dave Jordan said.
The 200-square-foot cottage that seemed like a cute addition ended up adding to the bill as they’re required to carry insurance for both properties, Dana Jordan said. The first year they paid $1,700 for both the main house and the cottage. But when the Biggert-Waters Act took affect, their rates were blown through the roof. They spent $825 on an elevation certificate and their rates increased by nearly 200 percent, Dana Jordan said.
“Our (insurance) bill was unbelievable. We were speaking to multiple insurance agencies and quotes were coming in for total coverage, which was around $10,000 a year. Isn’t that crazy? It was far beyond anything we anticipated when we bought this (house) and there was no disclosure at all,” Dave Jordan said. “Had we known that ... initial challenge would have been something we’d have to face, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have purchased this house.”
This year, they paid $2,300 for the cottage and $4,500 for the main house. The latter amount would have been $1,000 higher but the provider made a mistake and decided to give them the lower rate, Dana Jordan said.
They have learned to advocate for themselves, reaching out to city, state and national policymakers to share their story and ask for help, Dave Jordan said. Newton said she’s started a Facebook page and has been working with the Jordans and neighbors to try creating an assessment district.
Even though funds from an assessment district would help secure a bond for some of the improvements, the city has significantly fewer places to look than during the Shoreview improvement, Chan said. For Shoreview, the California Department of Transportation contributed more than $10 million toward highway-related improvements and there was access to redevelopment agency funds, Chan said.
Neither are options now, but the city will continue to look for grants and the City Council is dedicated to the project, Chan said.
Councilman Jack Matthews was stunned when he heard Dave and Dana’s story and quotes nearing $10,000 per year.
“[It’s] just beyond belief so that can’t be sustained and we need to do something to help these folks. So I’m behind that, I think the whole council is behind that,” Matthews said. “We’re all in this together, that’s what government is about. The whole idea of government is to work for the best interest of the community as a whole.”
Dave Jordan said he agreed and the city should be motivated to make the necessary repairs not just to relieve insurance burdens, but to help protect the entire city should the catastrophic flood FEMA sets rates for occurs.
“When you think of a community, I think of San Mateo as all of San Mateo. And I think everybody should be concerned about the safety and well-being of everybody in the community,” Dave Jordan said. “And obviously for financial interests, if housing values go up in one area, it’ll affect another. So in my mind, it’s a win-win if the city follows through.”
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