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Advocates say insurance costs strain homeowners

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Phyllis Nelson — a widow whose home on the Mississippi coast disappeared with Hurricane Katrina — leafs through family portraits, the only things she took with her when she evacuated.

After Katrina, Nelson, like many others, moved inland. She bought a home in St. Tammany Parish, north of New Orleans. Now she’s facing a new threat — not the weather, but foreclosure.

Increasing insurance premiums are putting Nelson and other like her at risk of foreclosure, according to housing advocates. Nelson’s monthly housing costs are $975, up about $80 because of insurance increases since she bought her home. Though it might not sound like much, her Social Security payment is only about $1,200 a month, leaving her little breathing room.

“If I don’t eat, I will pay my mortgage,” she says. “Because that’s the most important thing.”

“Since Hurricane Katrina, insurance premiums in Southern Louisiana have increased dramatically,” says Seth Weingart, who runs the homeownership protection program at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. “And for most homeowners where their insurance is included as part of their mortgage payment, that’s resulted in payments going up by hundreds of dollars a month.”

There have yet to be any studies testing the link between insurance costs and foreclosure. The concept is disputed by insurers.

“The fact of the matter is that there is a foreclosure crisis in America, but it has nothing to do with the cost of insurance,” says Robert Hartwig is the President of the Insurance Information Institute in New York City, an industry group. “It has everything to do with problem mortgages generally granted years ago.”

Hartwig says that rates may be high, but he points to increased insurance payouts. 

“In 2011, insurers paid $32 billion in insured losses from catastrophes, paid to policy holders all across the United States,” he says. “And in each and every case, the industry was the economic first responder helping individual homeowners, businesses and entire communities recover from disaster.”

While insurance industry experts say the current model is working, Weingart says that grassroots advocates are starting to push for something else.

If we could expand the pool of homeowners that are covered, to branch out across a wider area, then they could potentially lower the rates and make the more affordable to everyone in this kind of area,” he says.

Weingart doesn’t know if this idea will catch on. One thing that seems certain, though, though, as severe weather events become more common, it’s unlikely that rates will go down anytime soon.

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