"FEMA Won't Let Us Rebuild Our Home"

Sacramento family screwed by federal bureaucrats

The Taylor family lives in the Natomas community in Sacramento, California. On August 24, 2012, Brad and Jennifer were driving home with their two young children when they saw smoke in their neighborhood. As they got closer to home, they realized that their house was on fire. Jennifer jumped out of the car to get the family's elderly dog and two cats to safety while Brad drove the kids to their grandmother's house down the street. Though shaken, both Brad and Jennifer were relieved that no one had been hurt. "It's just a fire," Brad said. "It can all be replaced."

The Taylors initiated the long process of rebuilding less than a week after the fire. It was then that they found out that their troubles were just beginning. The city told the Taylors that due to a recently implemented Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regulation, they would need to raise the habitable part of their home above the area's base flood elevation. In the Taylors' case, that would mean raising their house some 20 feet off the ground. Raising their home was not covered by their insurance and, even if it were, such a structure would be impractical and odd looking in a development of mostly single-story ranch houses.

When the Taylors' bought their home in 1998, they thought they were making a safe investment. Though Natomas, like most of Sacramento, is located in a floodplain, the area was designated an X Zone (or moderate-risk area). In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and extensive criticism of the federal government's response to the disaster, the Army Corps of Engineers changed its standards, decertified the levees surrounding Natomas, and redesignated the area an AE Zone (or high-risk area). Residents were told that the change meant mandatory flood insurance for everyone with federally backed mortgage loans. The Taylors complied and have been paying for flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program ever since.

But the Taylors weren't told something else. Beginning in 2008 for structures in AE Zones, renovations that cost more than 50 percent of the value of a structure are prohibited unless they are raised above the base flood elevation. In the Taylors' case, the house that burned was valued at just $70,000 and reconstruction estimates are nearly $200,000 - not including the cost of jacking the house 20 feet up in the air. Because of the low valuation of the property, the Taylors could only spend $35,000 in renovation before the new FEMA regs kick in. That might be plenty of money to renovate a kitchen, but it isn't nearly enough to rebuild the Taylors' home.

Seeking answers, Jennifer Taylor contacted the city. While sympathetic, Sacramento officials told the Taylors that they couldn't grant a variance because non-compliance with FEMA regulations would get the city booted from the National Flood Insurance Program. So Jennifer contacted FEMA. The first thing she found out was that it is very difficult to find anyone at FEMA who knows what they're talking about, let alone someone who can help. The second thing she found out, when she did finally get a straight answer, was that FEMA doesn't have the authority to create an exception in the Taylors' case.

The Taylors will be allowed to rebuild their home once the Natomas Basin is redesignated an X Zone, but that won't happen until the federal government ponies up the money to complete major repairs to its levees. It's unclear if and when that money will be made available.

Five months after the fire, the Taylors are stuck in legal limbo, living in a rental property down the street from their ruined home. They're still paying for flood insurance and they're still paying their mortgage. Their mortgage company suggested that the walk away from the loan, but the Taylors believe it's their responsibility to fulfill their obligations.

At this point, the Taylors' best hope is that Congress will bail them out by allowing exeptions to federal law. Legislation written by their local member of Congress, Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) would give FEMA the authority to grant a variance to the Taylors and other homeowners trapped in similar situations.

In the meantime, the Taylors are trying to raise awareness about their plight; go to the "Burned OUT in Natomas" Facebook page to learn more.

About 7.30 minutes.

Produced by Paul Feine and Alex Manning.

Scroll down for downloadable versions and subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube channel to receive automatic updates when new material goes live.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Barack Obama doesn't care about white people.

  • wanderlustmisfit||

    we can expand 'white people' to... everyone who doesn't own major stock in the banking cartels, the medical-industrial complex, the military-industrial complex, or work or suck dick for the new world order.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "If I were in the same situation, I would want to blame someone, quite honestly. And it's easy to blame government."
    -FEMA bureaucrat

    There's a reason, in this situation, that it's easy to blame government.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    "It doesn't always work out the way we intended, but we never stop trying."
    -FEMA bureaucrat

    Let's just let that soak in for a moment.

  • dan'o||

    "Blame Congress." I guess passing the buck qualifies as never stop trying

  • Scooby||

    Step 1- Use the fire insurance proceeds to pay off the federally insured mortgage
    Step 2- Borrow privately to rebuild without flood insurance requirement
    or walk away, having satisfied their obligations

    In this one case, FEMA's trying to reduce the instances of building in a flood-prone area. Isn't that a good thing?

  • BarryD||

    No shit.

    As libertarians, don't we ordinarily APPLAUD the few times when Federal flood insurance isn't used to create ever more perverse incentives that lead to ever-increasing taxpayer costs and human suffering?

    Were it not for Federal flood "insurance", many people would not lose their homes, because they would never have bought or built them where they did.

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    Or use the proceeds to pay off the mortgage and buy a different house outside of the zone and get FEMA to buy out the lot. This is the obvious result of a federal subsidized flood insurance. It's rush and roulette. If your house is fine, you get to pay less than the market would require, if you suffer a catastrophe, you pay it all back in having to eliminate the risk in new construction. If they were having to pay private flood insurance, it'd be easier to rebuild without changes because they'd have fully paid for the risk up front. Sorry, you can't have your cake and eat it too.

  • TANSTaaFL||

    "rush and roulette"

    FYI, it's "Russian roulette"

    Also, anyone here pay more taxes than they are required too? even though our actual tax burden is much larger than what we are required to pay due to Government borrowing??

    See, nobody here pays more than they have to. Same deal with these folks and their subsidized flood insurance. They are just looking out for themselves and taking advantage of any opportunity open to lots of people.

    The fact that they accept this subsidy does not change the fact that this is a poorly designed regulation that does nothing to address the larger problem which is that that the government subsidizes flood insurance.

    This family is paying the price for a bad policy, a bad "band-aid" for that bad policy, bad agencies that regulate it and bad politicians that wrote it.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    It is quite possible to live in a flood zone by accepting the risks and adapting to the possible problems. Fuck FEMA.

  • BarryD||

    True enough.

    We need to get rid of Federal flood insurance completely and either eliminate FEMA altogether or reduce its role to immediate response to prevent loss of life when a disaster strikes.

    I don't give two shits if someone wants to build a house on the beach 1" above the mean high tide line -- as long as they assume ALL the risks of doing so.

    That's not how the world works at present. Any shift in that direction is a good shift.

  • Ron||

    Unfortunately what will happen is the owners will abandon the house, then for several years it will be taken over by drug dealers and other miscreants. Then the state will eventually at the request of the neighborhood tear the house down. Then after a few more years the city will look at the vacant lot and allow habitat for humanity to build a house in that location based on the design style of the neighborhood in essence a one story house on a slab

  • Alan||

    I agree. I don't know about others, but each time I've bought property one of my first questions was "Is it in a flood zone?"

    There is two exceptions I might allow: If the official valuation of their home is artificially low I would allow them to challenge that. There is, after all, no sense in wasting a pretty good house that has already been built just because there might be a flood in the future. However, if the valuation of the house is correct everyone would be better off if they bought a new house that is not in a flood plain - or raised it up. The other exception is if they're using their own money and relinquish their taxpayer-funded flood insurance.

  • Dallas H.||

    Is it just me or is the term "renovation" completely inappropriate in this case? Wouldn't fixing your burned down house be a repair? Perhaps the law clearly covers both (which is moronic), but I'm curious.

  • Jeremy O.||

    In flood zones like this, FEMA's rules only allow you to spend half of the assessed value of the home on "renovations." This home is assessed at $71,000 in value, so they would only be allowed to spend $35,000 on a "renovation" according to FEMA regulations.

  • Jeremy O.||

    I've been blogging about this issue for an insurance agency in the Sacramento area. What is amazing is the fact that the Taylors' insurance company is fully prepared to pay the cost of rebuilding the home, but FEMA rules are standing in the way. Congress is refusing to fund the levee repairs because according to House GOP rules, it's an earmark that violates their pork-barrel project ban.

  • ||

    Have the Taylors tried to cash out as Scooby| 1.24.13 @ 2:45PM suggested above?

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Fuck government levees.

  • Sevo||

    Jeremy O.| 1.24.13 @ 2:48PM |#
    ..."What is amazing is the fact that the Taylors' insurance company is fully prepared to pay the cost of rebuilding the home, but FEMA rules are standing in the way."...

    How much of that insurance is tax-payer subsidized?

  • wanderlustmisfit||

    fuck the federal government. this is why we need militias, so that people can go about their business without being harassed by the tyrants. this way when the fema despots come knocking on their door with ar-15s and attack dogs, the community is able to say 'fuck you you tryannical federal scum!'
    Every portion of the DHS needs to fed through a meat processor.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Fuck FEMA, flood insurance, and flood zone regulations. Let people build what they want where they want- with their own god damn money.

  • rickl7069||

    As a Libertarian, that is the basic view, with the exception that whatever you build can not endanger someone else's person or property, physically or economically. For instance, if you built a dump next to my house, I would suffer an extreme loss of property value.

  • Mr Whipple||

  • Mr Whipple||

  • Mr Whipple||

  • Mr Whipple||

    No. One wasn't enough for that bitch.

  • jimk||

    Reason,
    You can't have it both ways. First, if there was a profitable insurance market there, the homeowners should be able to access it. There isn't. Why? It's too risky for commercial insurers. So the taxpayer steps in. How much was the FEMA flood programs underinsured for Sandy? 21 Billion? So FEMA wants to make some rules not really about how you can build, just how you can build if you want to buy insurance from them. What is the problem with that? Is Reason now begging the government to assume additional unfunded liabilities by letting people continue to build all over willy nilly with no regard to flood safety? I don't imagine Reason loved the NJ/NY bailout/flood relief bill. Will we be writing stories about why the taxpayer is on the hook for all these waterfront properties? You can not have it both ways. The carney music is childish.

  • BarryD||

    This.

    FEMA won't stop them from forking over their OWN money if they want to live in a mediocre box in a floodplain.

    This is Sandra Fluke, but with a house, and Reason on Fluke's side...

  • Sevo||

    BarryD| 1.25.13 @ 9:00AM |#
    "This.
    FEMA won't stop them from forking over their OWN money if they want to live in a mediocre box in a floodplain."

    Pretty sure FEMA is doing exactly that.

  • Alan||

    Fully agreed.

  • John Galt||

    Exercise extreme caution, citizen, the Femanites are drooling for any excuse to use their shiny new hollow point bullets.

  • rickl7069||

    So? Spend the 31,000 and get the large, exterior stuff done and after these government people leave hire people like me to come in and finish the repairs, mostly inside, where the government doesn't know what you're doing unless you want to tell them.

  • Ron||

    The funny thing is there were no levees they would only have to raise the house above the natural flood plane of maybe eight feet. But since the levees work just as well at keeping water in as they do out this is what you get. If you look at the older homes, prelevee homes, they all sit four to eight feet above grade.

  • Ron||

    MY solution to this problem is.
    1. Tear down the house
    2. Set a house boat on the property.
    3. When it floods the house floats
    4. All problems solved.

    for full credit this solution was brought to you by Ron Bryant's Residential Drafting.

  • Mannie||

    This has been part of the National Flood Insurance Program since it's inception. This is what FEMA was actually created to do. The actual law is local. The municipality has to pass a flood plain ordinance to get National Flood Insurance.

    The ordinance restricts what kinds of development is allowed to be done in the 100-year flood plain. The objective is to reduce flood damage over time. If your house requires over 50% reconstruction, it can't be rebuilt.

  • ||

    How precisely is this not an unjust taking by the government? If the home were seized by imminent domain it would be no more unavailable for the owner's use than it is now. But an imminent domain seizure would require the government pay for the land they take.

  • Sevo||

    Gindjurra| 1.25.13 @ 7:07PM |#
    "How precisely is this not an unjust taking by the government?..."

    Would that it were so simple.
    The house was built in that area because there are government-provided levees supposedly protecting the area. And then there is the government-subsidized flood insurance for those who wish to build in those areas.
    And after all that, another government agency says 'no, no, you can't recover the values guaranteed by those other agencies!'
    Find a hero in this mess...

  • ygsrf||

    NFL,NBA,2013 Fashion kickoff for u

  • Sevo||

    Yeah, FU, too.

  • Fred Soundbar||

    I just want to reach out to the other readers of this article to visit the Facebook page and press the Like button. The Taylors need more news coverage, and whatever helps to get their home back.

Click here to follow Reason on Instagram

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE