Florida residents will soon be eligible for up to $10,000 in state grants for home hardening projects like roof reinforcement and garage door replacement.
A $150 million revival of a 16-year-old program, My Safe Florida Home, was included in a wide-ranging insurance bill enacted by the state Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis during last week’s special legislative session on property insurance.
The program will provide $115 million in two-to-one grant funding — meaning that qualifying homeowners can receive $2 back for every $1 they spend on improvements meant to strengthen their home against damage from hurricane-force winds.
Because the funding is limited, homeowners who would like to participate are likely looking for ways to get in line now so they can be among the first recipients. If all participants qualified for the maximum $10,000 grant, then just 11,500 homeowners will qualify. That number will be higher depending on how many applicants qualify for grants under $10,000.
While the Department of Financial Services, which will run the program, expects grants to be awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, homeowners interested in applying will have to wait for the department to develop application procedures and eligibility requirements, department spokesman Devin Galetta said in an email.
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is working to set up the program “as quickly and efficiently as possible to allow homeowners to start hardening their homes against storms,” Galetta said. After the program is launched, qualifying homeowners will be able to combine the matching grant benefit with a sales tax exemption for storm-resistant windows, exterior doors and garage doors that will take effect for two years beginning July 1, he said.
Homeowners will have to begin the process by scheduling a hurricane mitigation inspection to identify improvements that will protect their homes from hurricane-force winds and qualify them for maximum available insurance discounts, Galetta said.
“As the program is stood up, we will be clarifying [grant] eligibility requirements according to the insured value of the home, location, prior inspection history and home hardening needs,” Galetta said.
It’s not yet known exactly what improvements will be eligible for grant funding. The original version of the program, which operated from 2006 to 2008, limited funding to specific needs such as roof deck attachments, secondary water barriers, roof covering, reinforcements for roof-to-wall connections, opening protections and exterior doors, including garage doors.
But with more money being made available, it’s possible the list of eligible improvements will be expanded as well.
Patronis has received authority to develop the program under the state’s emergency rule making process, which will allow the department to bypass requirements that could delay a launch until well into hurricane season. Galetta did not project a launch date for the program.
Language in the statute lays out the program’s basic parameters. Most of that language is unchanged from when the program was originally authorized. To qualify:
- Eligible properties must be located in the “wind-borne debris region” as defined under the Florida Building Code. This refers primarily to the coastal areas of the state susceptible to hurricane-force winds of 120 or greater miles per hour. In South Florida, all of Broward and Miami-Dade counties and all but Palm Beach County’s westernmost area are in this region.
- Replacement value of homes must be $500,000 or less instead of the original limit of $300,000.
- Qualified applicants will be eligible for up to $10,000 instead of the original $5,000 limit.
- Awards of $2 for every $1 spent by homeowners will replace the original match of $1 per $1 spent.
- Properties must be homesteaded. No second homes or investor-owned properties are eligible.
- Qualifying homes must have been initially permitted for construction before January 1, 2008.
The original $250 million version of the program funded 400,000 inspections and nearly 39,000 home improvement grants, according to published reports.
But the program was tainted by reports of contractors failing to complete jobs and performing shoddy work, and of inspectors submitting fake reports just to collect payments from the state. It was also slow to gain traction during its first year, leaving applications backlogged for months and some homeowners waiting up to a year to be reimbursed.
After the 2008 housing market crash, many applicants who were approved for grant funding let their grants expire because they could not afford to pay their portion of the project costs. In 2009, the Legislature declined to provide funding to extend the program.
Sponsors of the bill that emerged from the House and Senate last week pledged that the Department of Financial Services will more closely monitor participating contractors and inspectors and do a better job preventing fraud this time around.
Galetta said, “We will be researching the prior program and enacting lessons learned to reduce fraud and streamline the program’s implementation.”
Critics in the Legislature will be watching the rollout closely. Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando-area Democrat, called on the department to confirm that only qualified, credible home inspectors are hired. “Fraud prevention will be key here, as we don’t want Floridians receiving inaccurate inspections.”
Michael Burrman, owner of Burrman Home Inspections in Spring Hill, reviewed inspections for the state during the program’s first iteration. He said that unqualified people who previously worked at desk jobs in insurance companies were getting certified to perform home inspections.
“Then they’d run around and do 20 jobs a day,” he said. “If the homeowner wasn’t home, they’d falsify a report, take a photo of the house, submit it and get paid.”
Eskamani would like to see the $500,000 replacement value limit removed and eligibility opened beyond the wind-borne debris region.
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She also urged the department to ensure that homeowners can apply with paper forms, over the phone or at a physical location. “Far too many Florida programs are only available to people who are tech savvy, leaving those with no computer access or who are not computer fluent struggling to apply and participate,” she said.
Burrman, who served on Hernando County’s Housing Authority, said the funding might be put to better use by allocating it to local governments and let them determine what’s most needed.
As an example, he cited a discovery of at least 500 homes built several decades ago had only two nails holding the metal hurricane truss straps to the frame of the house. Two nails per strap protected the roof from uplift in winds up to 90 mph.
Three screws increases the protection to 120 mph winds — and gets the homeowner a $300 to $500 discount, Burrman said.
The housing authority found a way to tap into its available State Housing Initiatives Partnership Program (SHIP) funds, which can be used for various types of assistance for low-income home buyers and homeowners, to create a program that added the third nail to low-income residents’ hurricane straps, Burrman said.
“It was a win-win-win. They got a safer house. It made the neighbors safer. Plus it got them an insurance discount,” he said. “The closer you get to the community, the more the decision makers know what the community needs.”
Ron Hurtibise covers business and consumer issues for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached by phone at 954-356-4071, on Twitter @ronhurtibise or by email at email@example.com.