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Climate Threats Could Mean Big Jumps in Insurance Costs This Year

Previous efforts to increase flood insurance rates have been delayed or rolled back in the face of public pressure. In 2012, Congress passed a law that would have brought rates in line with the full risk people faced; two years later, lawmakers backed down, replacing those changes with more modest increases.

FEMA’s new flood insurance system has prompted similar concerns. The new rates were initially supposed to take effect last October, but members of Congress warned FEMA about the effect that increases would have on their constituents. The Trump administration delayed the new rates until this year, worried in part that increasing premiums shortly before the election would hurt President Trump politically, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

The agency could theoretically find ways to further blunt those rate increases, according to Roy Wright, who ran the insurance program until 2018. For example, FEMA could decide that insurance premiums should be tied to a structure rather than a homeowner, so that annual limits on price increases would still be in effect even if the house changed owners.

And experience suggests that home values keep increasing in the most desirable coastal areas despite rising insurance costs, Mr. Wright said, because people’s desire to live near water is often unaffected by whether it makes financial sense.

“Is it going to depress property values?” said Mr. Wright, who now heads the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, a research group. “In attractive real estate markets, we haven’t seen that.”

Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, a research organization in Washington that advocates for market-based policies, said the government could not ignore the financial burden facing people who already live in flood-prone homes.

But rather than shielding those people by keeping insurance rates low, Mr. Lehrer argued that Congress should offer direct subsidies, and only for people with modest incomes who would otherwise struggle to stay in their homes. Everyone else, he said, should face the full cost of the risk they face.

“We’ve been subsidizing people to live in areas that were dangerous when they moved there, and have become more dangerous,” Mr. Lehrer said.