E. GARCIA AND YUDY PINEIRO
Florida homeowners are no longer silent victims of the state's insurance crisis. From the Keys to the Panhandle, they've mobilized.
In Miami-Dade County, they have launched a major petition drive to tell lawmakers in Tallahassee that soaring rates are choking their personal finances and the quality of their lives. In Pembroke Park, mobile-home owners are putting some new ideas on the table. In Brevard and Collier counties, groups of home and business owners have been hard at work crafting their own insurance solutions.
''Next year, I won't have any savings,'' said Zenobia Lopez of Biscayne Gardens, who signed the Miami-Dade petition. "Where am I supposed to come up with $5,000 again? We need to do something.''
Rather than stand by as insurance rates climb rapidly along with gas, property taxes and other living expenses, tens of thousands of Florida residents are demanding action. Come Jan. 16, when the Legislature begins a weeklong special session to address the state's insurance crisis, some of these newly minted consumer activists will swarm the state Capitol.
''It's our legislators that are doing this to us,'' said Julio Pinto of Kendall.
Pinto, who pays $9,000 annually in property insurance, is one of more than 35,000 Florida homeowners who have signed the growing petition, launched by a Kendall-area firm. Hundreds more signatures roll in daily.
Dynamic Public Adjusters Group, a Kendall-area company that helps homeowners try to get higher returns on insurance claims, started the petition in September under the name Floridians in Action. The group is now beginning to put together a board of directors so its work can continue long after the petition has been delivered.
Some of what the petition seeks: rate relief, tougher statewide building codes and a strong lobbying effort for a national catastrophe fund.
The document has since infiltrated neighborhoods from the Keys to the Panhandle by way of public service announcements, Spanish and English websites, a blog, postcards left at restaurant counters and, most of all, word of mouth.
Dynamic's owner, Belen Valladares, plans to continue the drive right up until the special session. The group is planning to take along a busload of supporters when Valladares presents the petition to legislators in Tallahassee.
''What we want to do is make sure that the insurance industry doesn't get away with passing all kinds of legislation on us,'' Valladares said.
Ileana Gonzalez, a Miami homeowner whose rate doubled this year to $3,000, said she heard about the website AdjustLoss.com through a friend and e-mailed the link to her entire address book.
Other signers wrote that insurance has become a luxury they can no longer afford. Some are dropping coverage, others are being priced out of their homes.
Meanwhile, a group of mobile-home owners in Broward County's Pembroke Park isn't shy about putting new ideas on the table, even if some lawmakers sometimes are. They would like to see auto insurers cover mobile homes since they now insure recreational vehicles and boats.
''If the auto insurers would cover the mobile homes, we could alleviate the burden on Citizens Property Insurance,'' said Michael Sousy, Pembroke Park's code enforcement and community liaison officer, who has helped organize the mobile-home owners.
Citizens is the state-run insurer of last resort. But for many homeowners, like folks who own mobile homes, older houses or condos in coastal areas, Citizens is the only insurer. With nearly 1.3 million policies -- nearly half of those in South Florida -- it's the largest insurer in the state.
NEW STATE LAW
Residents insured by Citizens are particularly concerned these days because a new state law requires the insurer to boost its reserves rapidly so it has enough money on hand to cover claims from a massive storm. That means big increases over the next three years. The first one is a 55.8 percent hike planned for March.
Last week, Citizens' board of governors decided to table the increase until after the special session. The board is hoping there will be some changes.
So are other groups around the state.
''Our biggest fear is that the proposals that come out of the special session won't be comprehensive enough,'' said Sherri Hudson, a mortgage banker in Brevard County who has helped organize a group of consumers and business owners called Insurance Reform Now.
Her group is drafting its own list of remedies: eliminate that provision in the new state insurance law that requires the huge premium increases in Citizens' rates; prevent insurers from canceling long-term policyholders; allow rate increases on a more gradual basis; and push for the creation of a regional or national catastrophe fund. ''That might be a way to spread the risk a bit,'' Hudson said.
Her group and other consumers chafe at the repeated suggestion from insurers, as well as many lawmakers, for less regulation of the insurance industry. ''There have to be some safeguards for consumers,'' Hudson said.
Indeed, consumers can oppose electric and phone company rate increases through Florida's Public Counsel office, but homeowners have no such ability with insurers.
In Collier County, a consumer group began taking shape in October. It meets every Thursday and has set up committees for fundraising and making legislative contacts.
FAIR for Collier County -- Fighting Against Insurance Rates -- has hired the same actuary that worked with residents in Monroe County who successfully challenged a Citizens rate increase for the Keys earlier this year. That grass-roots group, Fair Insurance Rates for Monroe, or FIRM, has 3,000 members.
''I love Collier County and I don't want anyone to be victimized by the high cost of insurance,'' said Bobby Dusek, a Naples Realtor and a native Floridian. ``We have this image that everyone in Collier County is rich. But the majority of this county isn't.''
For the most part, these consumer movements are designed to put politicians on notice that they will be held accountable for what gets done in the special session.
The new House speaker, Marco Rubio of Miami, has acknowledged the Miami-Dade petition, which is addressed to him. Other Miami-area legislators are supporting the residents' drive.
''More than collecting signatures, they're taking the time to educate people about the reality of what they're paying, why their premiums are going up and, more importantly, they're letting them know about possibilities for change,'' said state Rep. Julio Robaina, a Miami Republican whose own 22-point plan includes holding the entire state up to the same building code standards as in South Florida and having the state establish its own reinsurer to help bring down rates.
In recent days, Gov.-elect Charlie Crist, Rubio and several other key legislators have said the planned Citizens rate increase is too onerous and the new provision in the insurance bill requiring the increases needs to be modified or possibly scrapped.
Alex Sink, the state's newly elected chief financial officer, and some lawmakers have also said the state needs a stronger consumer advocate to challenge rate increases. Other lawmakers have called for expanding the state grant program for strengthening homes and allowing consumers to increase deductibles.
Rep. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and fellow Democrats are pushing a proposal to create a state insurance pool that would provide the first layer of windstorm insurance for home and condo owners.
Mounting pressure on the politicians is not only coming from residents, but insurers too, who spent millions in campaign contributions this election.
''We know we're fighting an uphill battle,'' said Waldo Faura III, an adjuster at Dynamic. "Insurance companies have a lot of money. But we have to fight.''
Pinto, the Kendall resident, says he has a message for Tallahassee: "Get the job done.''