My Safe Florida Home extends improvements deadline, reinstates grants for hurricane-proofing

Jan 5, 2009

South Florida Sun-Sentinel–January 1, 2009

By Diane C. Lade

About a third of the 40,000 Florida homeowners who qualified for free government money to make hurricane improvements have yet to claim it.

The reason: Many can no longer afford to pay contractors upfront while waiting for state reimbursement for the cost of the home upgrades. Others have lost their My Safe Florida Home grants because they expire one year after an application is approved.

The program offers as much as $5,000 for stormproofing projects, such as installing hurricane shutters and impact-resistant windows.

Fearing the trend will continue as the economy worsens, state officials this month will begin notifying consumers with unused money that the deadline has been extended to March 31. Expired grants also will be reinstated.

“If people are having trouble completing their work, we want them to call us,” said Tami Torres, My Safe program administrator.

Low-income homeowners can apply for My Safe’s direct-pay option, which does not require an advance deposit. All direct-pay work statewide is being done through Home Safety Solutions in Tampa, which has a contract that allows the state rather than the homeowner to pay the contractor. Those interested in direct pay should call My Safe Florida Home at 866-513-6734.

But most homeowners with unused grants still must come up with thousands of dollars to get their hurricane improvements because they don’t meet the low-income requirement for direct pay.

South Florida contractors say some of their would-be My Safe customers have backed out after receiving the program’s free wind inspection and an estimate, saying they can’t afford to do the job.

“The program is excellent. But most of the people don’t have the money to pay the contractor and wait for the government to reimburse them,” said Carlos Medina, owner of Accordion Shields of Florida in Miami-Dade County.

Arturo Vasquez, a Hialeah retired machinist living on a fixed income, got bids on new windows and shutters from Medina’s company and other contractors. Estimates ranged from $2,000 to $10,300.

But his My Safe grant is untouched almost a year after Vasquez received approval because the program requires him to first pay upfront. “I can’t do it because I’m retired, and I don’t have the cash,” said Vasquez, 73.

Others are reluctant to spend their own money because they must match the state’s contribution dollar for dollar unless they qualify for low-income assistance.

My Safe Florida Home was created by the Legislature as a way to encourage Floridians to strengthen their homes against hurricanes and reduce their insurance bills.

The $250 million program had a difficult start as a coastal area pilot project in August 2006, quickly building a backlog of consumers waiting for their inspections and reimbursements. The Florida Department of Financial Services took over for the private administrative contractor in 2007, when My Safe went statewide.

The application period closed on May 31, and the program will end in June 2009, unless it is reauthorized by the Legislature.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink has asked lawmakers to allocate $25 million next year to continue My Safe, targeting low-income homeowners. Sink also requested the $10 million that was earmarked for a My Safe loan program, which was not tapped because no providers bid on the project, be released to serve consumers on the program’s waiting list.

But Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Parkland, chairman of the Broward Legislative Delegation, said coming up with the money will be difficult when Florida faces a $2 billion shortfall in its current budget year.

“My Safe Florida Home saved people a lot of money,” he said, “but it cost the state a lot of money to implement.”