Retired teacher Linda Westwood of Quincy at the podium is concerned about her homeowners insurance rates and the threat that she might lose it altogether. She was just one of many people who shared their plight with members of the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 20. Photos by Victoria Metcalf

Residents call homeowners insurance situation a crisis

When it comes to affording, keeping or getting homeowners insurance Plumas County is in a state of crisis.

That’s the message residents, real estate representatives, an insurance broker and others had for members of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 20 during a public hearing.

Supervisors are attempting to remedy the situation by joining other surrounding counties in protesting the cancellation of insurance to homeowners.

Following a public hearing designed to allow residents and others to voice their concerns, frustrations and fears, supervisors voted to send a letter to state Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara.

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Within the letter supervisors called the situation alarming as insurance rates soar to astronomical levels or homeowner policies are canceled.

Her voice rising with emotion and determination, Supervisor Lori Simpson took the lead among supervisors to do something to help residents.

She said that last May a woman started telling her story about her insurance dilemma. “It’s been escalating since,” Simpson said.

Simpson also attended a meeting of anxious Feather River Canyon residents. “We need to get on board and let him (insurance commissioner) know how bad this is,” she said. “This is all through the county,” she added.

Simpson said that she talked to some local insurance brokers “and they’re having issues. It’s not their fault. It’s way beyond that.”

“This is serious,” she emphasized.

Simpson described another situation when she talked to a young teacher with a 3-year-old. She had bought her first home and was now worried about foreclosure because of the insurance issue.

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“We want professional people to move here,” Simpson said. If they can’t afford or even get homeowners insurance they’re not going to move here, Simpson explained. And being able to sell a home is another concern. “There’s already a housing shortage,” throughout the state and this is adding to the problem, Simpson said.

Lack of fire stations

Twain resident Roger Sanchez, one of many Feather River Canyon residents who have had their homeowners insurance canceled, said that potential insurers wouldn’t offer coverage to areas without a fire station.

In a July meeting Simpson attended, Sanchez and others discussed their dilemma. CalFire has a station at the west end of the Feather River Canyon at Yankee Hill, but they don’t traditionally respond.

A fire truck is situated at Caribou, and the Plumas National Forest has an engine stationed during the fire season at Gansner Bar off Caribou Road. The Forest Service defends public lands if a private land or structure fire threatens them. But they are not trained in fighting structure fires, nor are those their primary concern.

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That leaves the closest fire station in Quincy. Some insurance companies are balking because it is made up of volunteer firefighters, not paid, full-time employees.

Another concern is that, and as insurance investigators are quick to point out, the Feather River Canyon doesn’t have fire hydrants. “We don’t have the proper equipment or a station that is fully manned,” Sanchez summed up the situation.

He added that Canyon residents also don’t have a fire protection plan.

John Cappleman, who lives on Rush Creek Road in the Feather River Canyon, said he had owned his home for 19 years. During the Rich Fire in 2008 the state got $17 million in a settlement with the railroad for allegedly starting the fire. He wondered why the state couldn’t build a fire station in the area with some of that money?

Drastic rate increases

Retired teacher Linda Westwood said her log home on Purdy Lane near Quincy used to cost $400 a year for homeowners insurance. Due to insurance increases she had to turn to Lloyds of London and accept a $3,000 annual bill.

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To pay for the increase and to hire people to maintain her forested property, Westwood said she turned to substitute teaching to afford the costs. “I don’t think I can keep the pace to maintain” it all, she said. “It is becoming cost prohibitive.”

Westwood also pointed out what she called a Catch 22 situation. She has timber on her property. As she has the property thinned to become more firesafe, she said she should be able to sell the wood. Although CalFire regulations state that she can use the wood for her personal needs, she can’t sell it.

“I never thought of leaving Plumas County,” Westwood said. “But I might have to.”

Retired teacher Sally McGowan said she’s lived in the area for 35 years. When considering rate increases, she pointed out the number of seniors on Social Security that can’t afford the enormous rate hikes.

McGowan talked about a neighbor who was hit was a tremendous rate increase. She said he did his research and went with Lloyds of London, a year later they dropped him. He finally ended up with what many are finding is their only recourse, he went with the FAIR Plan offered by the state of California.

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The FAIR Plan provides only basic protection and requires a second wraparound policy, adding to the expense. McGowan said the FAIR Plan came in at $1,800.

David Rasmussen of Clio said that he just retired and moved to the area permanently — maybe. He said he’s seen his insurance with Nationwide increase significantly and that was with working with the company on their requirements for defensible space. That was in 2017.

Rasmussen said that his home is in the old part of Clio and there is a fire hydrant near his lot. However he owns 10 acres that adjoin his property and that was presenting insurance problems.

Before his homeowner policy was eventually dropped, one Lake Almanor resident, Gary Hinshaw, said that he saw his rate increase eventually from $1,800 to more than $6,000. He said he called 18 different agencies and brokers in an effort to get insurance.

Wendy Wolf of Blairsden said she watched as her rates went from $1,700 to $1,800 and then up to $5,000.

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Wolf said she talked to someone on the board of supervisors in Eldorado County and they’re going through the same things. “What’s it going to be next year if we can’t get it fixed?” she asked.

She’s concerned that they can take homes away if people can’t get insurance.

Cancellations

Twain resident Jerry Sanchez said he recently received a notification that his homeowners insurance was being cancelled. “If my house burns down I don’t really have the money to rebuild it,” he said. The home he could rebuild would be far less than what he now enjoys.

McGowan said that she lives on Old Highway Road near Quincy. In 2017, CalFire inspectors visited that area and reassessed its fire hazard rating from a 4 to a 10. Just a few months later people started receiving homeowners insurance cancellations. Others had their rates raised exponentially, she added.

Attempting to do something about it, McGowan said neighbors gathered and did the work and are now the 16th Firewise district in the county.

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Rasmussen said that despite everything that he’s done at Nationwide’s insistence, he has received notice that his insurance is being cancelled as of Oct. 19. He added that his neighbor has been dropped from two different companies.

A Lake Almanor resident said that he and his family had been coming to the area since 2000. In 2011 he bought what he described as his dream home. Although he’s been a member of AAA insurance since 1971, they canceled his homeowners insurance June 30.

This is a man who said he has a 35-year career as a wildland firefighter and risen through the ranks. He’s fought more forest fires than he cares to count.

He also understands defensible space requirements and followed them to the letter. When he contacted his insurance company for an explanation about why his policy was dropped he said their “excuses were shallow and inaccurate.”

The Lake Almanor resident came prepared with photos of his property and compared it to his neighbor’s land. He said the trees on his neighbor’s property were so thick he couldn’t see the house from the road yet he has insurance.

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Longtime Indian Valley resident Joyce Velasco said she received a letter from her homeowners insurance company threatening to drop her coverage.

Digging in, she asked the company what she could do to make the property more insurable. Someone from the company pointed out the flowerbeds at the front and rear of her home and said that they had to go. So they tore them out. She said the representative she talked to said he couldn’t guarantee that would be enough to save her insurance and she’s still awaiting news.

Wendy Wolf  of Blairsden said she has been with Liberty Mutual for 24 years. They canceled her policy because of the zip code.

Home sales

Westwood said that she has a neighbor in the Purdy Lane area that has a home on the market and he can’t sell it. No one can get insurance or afford it if they find it.

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Plumas County Association of Realtors President Jeanne Dansby said they have had people cancel home purchases because the cost of homeowners insurance was prohibitive. Dansby was joined by one of the association’s directors, Laurie Humphries.

At this point she said that agents are wondering, “who can we call this time?” as they attempt to assist prospective buyers.

At a state realty association meeting in April, Dansby said the homeowners insurance question was “a big deal.”

She sees the situation as a crisis.

Rasmussen said that attending the meeting in front of the board of supervisors was a real eye opener. He said that he and his wife are now intending to move and he hadn’t even considered that he might not be able to sell his property because of the insurance issue.

A word from a broker

Mike Flanigan of Flanigan Leavitt Insurance told supervisors, “We’re suffering. Everybody knows it.”

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His company is losing four or five accounts a day.

He said he hired two new people in an effort to locate sources that will handle the insurance coverage. “Everybody abandoned the market,” he said. “And it’s going to last a long time.”

Flanigan said that Hartford Insurance has long guaranteed that seniors won’t lose their homeowners insurance coverage. But then he learned that they’re starting to cancel policies. “It really is a crisis.”

“We need more players in the marketplace,” Flanigan said.He advised that if anyone gets an offer of homeowners insurance to write the check.

Flanigan said that it used to be a concern to get homeowners insurance for those in forested areas, but he’s experienced an insurance cancellation for someone on Katherine Street in East Quincy. Another member of the audience is concerned about the rates and cancellation threat and she lives on Buchanan Street in Quincy.

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Forester’s viewpoint

Judy Blaso, a forester living in the Tahoe area, told supervisors, “I’m literally shocked that nothing is being done.”

Blaso’s opinion is that insurance companies are not looking at what they should be looking at. While some companies discuss distance between tree crowns as a fire safety issue, when looking at what happened in the Camp Fire in Paradise last November, “There was nothing that was going to stop that fire,” she said.

Considering her own home, Blaso said that her insurance carrier didn’t drop her. “I think it was the luck of the draw.”

Redlining laws

Cappleman also brought up redline laws and asked why they didn’t apply to homeowners insurance.

Redline laws typically apply to a discriminatory practice where lending institutions would deny mortgage loans regardless of an individual’s credit history. Denial was traditionally based on the area’s condition, usually one that was deteriorating.

The term itself comes from the use of a red pen or pencil to cross out or highlight unwanted areas.

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Redlining also applied to a person’s race.

Congress passed the Fair Housing Act of 1968 in an effort to eliminate redlining practices. But there were loopholes quickly found in the legislation.

In October 1992, a federal court ruled that redlining is illegal based under the same Fair Housing Act. In this case, the ruling was based on discrimination.

Redlining came up again in Civil Rights issues concerning homeowners insurance in Detroit in 2015.

According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in 1997 “fair housing activists have campaigned to limit insurance companies’ use of risk-based methods for underwriting and pricing homeowners insurance.”

In this case, groups including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the National Fair Housing Alliance, and the Consumers Union went after insurance companies accusing them of redlining against specific geographic areas.

According to Robert Detlefsen’s article, although the original action against redlining pertained to discrimination, it was learned that insurers do use methods to discriminate among customers based on risk.

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“Nevertheless, one consequence of the universal application of risk-based insurance criteria is that, compared to other homeowners, residents of predominantly minority inner-city neighborhoods often pay more for homeowners insurance, while frequently receiving less coverage. The fundamental reason is risk,” according to Detlefsen.

Using that reasoning, Detlefsen went on to say that such actions took “on the trappings of a civil rights issue.”

While Feather River Canyon residents and residents throughout Plumas County aren’t openly discriminated against because of urban-related race issues or abandoned buildings, it might appear that major insurance companies are raising rates and canceling policies primarily due to risk factors.

That said, The Fair Housing Act doesn’t stop redlining when neighborhoods or regions are targeted due to geological factors including fault lines or flood zones.

Lending companies can also take into account property conditions, neighborhood amenities and city services, according to Federal Fair Lending Regulations and Statutes of the Fair Housing Act.

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Supervisors’ discussion

Simpson thanked the audience for sharing their stories and their concerns. “I know it’s really hurting you guys.”

Supervisor Kevin Goss said it was good that Plumas County has such a strong Firewise movement and had it for a long time.

SIDEBAR:

Letter from Plumas County Board of Supervisors to state insurance commissioner

Dear Honorable Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara,

The Plumas County Board of Supervisors have (sic) heard from our constituents about an alarming rate of astronomical rate increases and cancellations of homeowner insurance policies in Plumas County due to past catastrophic wildfires in California. We are aware that this is also a problem throughout the State of California as well.

Plumas County has over 70 percent federal land that is always at risk for wildfire during fire season, especially after years of low forest management that has increased the risk.

Plumas County has a very active Plumas County Firesafe Council and most recently many of our communities have become Firewise certified communities. (Currently we have 15 certified with six more in process). Our constituents are doing all they can to protect their homes and properties from wildfire, but we need more help to make sure they can insure their homes. Those that have home mortgages must have insurance, but the options for homeowner insurance are becoming more and more limited or not available at all. This is an extremely concerning situation that can affect the real estate industry as well.

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We have recently heard that your office has created an Insurance Strike Team and that you have met with other counties (Butte, Nevada, and Placer) concerning this issue. We would like to invite you to Plumas County so that we can have a meeting with you and your staff to address this very concerning situation in Plumas County.

The letter was signed by Kevin Goss, chairperson of the Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Lori Simpson authored the letter.