For those of us fortunate enough to have never experienced a house fire, it’s difficult to imagine the feeling of losing all of one’s worldly possessions. Most homeowners purchase fire insurance to prepare for that contingency and to minimize the cost of repairs. But imagine how you would feel if: (a) your house suffers severe fire damage; (b) your insurance company is willing to pay for the repairs; but (c) the government refuses to allow you to re-build your home. As a result, you are left with a fire-damaged, shell of a home in which you cannot live but on which you must still pay your mortgage and taxes. Meanwhile, you must pay for another place to house your family. Sadly, this is no hypothetical situation for the Taylor family whose Sacramento home was largely destroyed by fire in August. Their insurance company will pay for the repairs, but the City of Sacramento refuses to issue the necessary building permits because of a 2008 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) development moratorium.
According to FEMA, the Taylor’s home, along with thousands more in the “Natomas” suburb of Sacramento, is located within a vulnerable flood plain that does not receive sufficient protection from the existing levees. In 2008, FEMA decertified those levees with the result that the City cannot issue any building permits for new development, or for home repairs if the cost of those repairs exceeds 50% of the structure’s original value. The only way to get around that limitation is to raise the new development or existing structure above of the level of the flood plain. For the Taylors, whose repairs would exceed the 50% threshold, they would have to raise the foundation of their home more than 26 feet. Even if that were physically or financially feasible, the City of Sacramento will not allow it. The Taylor’s home is, after all, located in a fully-developed suburban neighborhood. Imagine how their neighbors would feel, or how the street would look, with one house towering 26 feet above all the others. And how could they possibly park their car in the garage? Would they have to climb a ladder to reach the front door?
While it’s understandable that the City doesn’t want to license such architectural absurdities, the Taylors are left with few options. The City can’t get out from under FEMA’s moratorium until the federal government authorizes and funds a massive levee improvement project. Meanwhile, the Taylor’s burned out home remains an eyesore and a testament to the absurdity of a government regulation ostensibly designed to protect property that instead requires a destroyed home to remain destroyed. Perhaps the Taylors should erect a plaque in their front yard, memorializing how FEMA, the federal agency designed to mitigate emergencies, affirmatively prohibited them from repairing their home after an emergency and compounded the tragedy of their house fire into another tragedy of even greater proportions.