Hilary Hodge: Level the playing field for affordable insurance | TheUnion.com

Hilary Hodge: Level the playing field for affordable insurance

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Hilary Hodge

Last week I got a call from a heartbroken 80-year-old woman. She had received a cancellation notice from her homeowner’s insurance company which had been carrying her policy for decades.

The insurance company cited fire danger as the reason for the cancellation. She is a widow on a fixed income. She lives in the house that she and her husband worked to pay off. Since her husband passed, the vegetation around her property had become overgrown.

She explained to me that she had been on a waiting list for a program that helps local seniors with yard work. She was told the list was quite long. She secured a loan in order to pay for the removal of two trees and to complete some brush clearing on her 5-acre lot. The work cost over $5,000. To her, it seemed worth it based on the exorbitant insurance quotes to secure a new policy for her house.

When she called the insurance company which canceled her policy, explaining that she had fixed the fire danger, she was told that her policy would still be canceled. After shopping around, she found a policy that would cost her more than $1,000 each month.

This issue is personal to me. Our family received our own cancellation notice last week.

“It’s more than I can afford,” she said. After a pause she added, “And now I have to pay back the loan.”

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When Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara visited our community last week, he talked a lot about community fire mitigation as a solution to fire danger. Mitigation may in fact be a solution to fire danger but it does not solve the immediate issue of insurance cancellation.

Community fire mitigation for neighborhood resilience is a worthy and important endeavor that affects each and every person in our community. It is a long-term goal that will require our entire community and a lifetime of work. We all know that when a fire comes to our doors, it will not ask us about our political affiliation, our religion or our insurance coverage. We know that fire is indiscriminate. We must all be prepared.

We must look after our neighbors and help others who may not have the means or the ability to clear brush or take down trees. To keep our entire community safe, we must all pitch in and do our part to help those who may have limitations. Community collaboration will be essential to safety today and for the future. Taking care of the land on which we live is the commitment we must make for living in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

In the context of homeowner’s insurance, however, the conversation about community fire mitigation seems to be giving the wrong impression for many of our community members and I’m worried.

Homeowner’s insurance is issued by private, for-profit companies. Comprehensive coverage for natural disasters such as fire, flood and earthquake liability is also issued by private for-profit companies.

If a person has had a policy for decades, there is nothing to require that the industry take into account shared liability and risk over time. Further, due to satellite imaging and mapping, risk assessment has evolved from a historical-claim model to a probable-risk model, using vegetation density as a baseline. This puts Northern California, specifically the Sierra Foothills, as a targeted cancellation zone, even though our community is taking the right steps toward fire mitigation.

A private, for-profit industry is going to look at the bottom line of profitability, the probable payouts for shareholders, and the viability of multimillion-dollar salaries for their CEOs, before they look at community resilience and fire mitigation. A private, for-profit company is going to look at the money they can make before they look at a vulnerable 80-year-old lady who just wants to live the rest of her life in the home that her and her late husband made their memories in.

Communities like Grass Valley are on the front line of insurance liability because we are on the front line of climate change. People who have paid into the system their entire lives without a single claim are having policies canceled. People who are taking the right steps toward home-hardening and defensible space are seeing their policies dropped.

This issue is personal to me. Our family received our own cancellation notice last week.

We can talk about mitigation. We can talk about resiliency. We can talk about reform. But until we talk about a public option, a level playing field, and affordable insurance for everyone, we are not talking about access.

I want my community to thrive. I want the people who love this community to be able to live their lives here. I want to stay in my home. I want my aging friends to be able to live the last years of their lives in the homes they love and with the memories they cherish. I want the future communities we build in Grass Valley to have affordable insurance and affordable housing. I want all of us to be as safe as possible from fire and climate catastrophes. I want everyone in our community to have access to affordable and comprehensive insurance.

I called my 80-year-old friend yesterday. She was cleaning out her husband’s side of the closet. It was the first time she had touched or moved any of his belongings since his death five years ago.

She was packing to move. Their home is on the market.

Hilary Hodge is a member of the Grass Valley City Council. Contact her at hilaryh@cityofgrassvalley.com.

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