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North Carolina homeowners respond with shock and anger at proposed homeowners insurance rate hikes

A house overlooking the city of Asheville, with mountains in the distance.
Felicia Sonmez
A house overlooking the city of Asheville.

North Carolinians voiced outrage Monday during a day-long listening session held by the state ahead of a potential homeowners insurance rate hike of as much as 99% in some areas.

In Western North Carolina, the proposed homeowners insurance rate hike ranges from 4.3% in Haywood, Madison, Swain and Transylvania Counties to 20.5% in Buncombe and 10 other counties: Alleghany, Ashe, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Henderson, McDowell, Polk, Watauga and Yancey.

Statewide, the average increase requested by the North Carolina Rate Bureau, which represents insurance companies, is 42.2%. In some coastal counties, the requested increase is 99.4%.

Experts say the increases are driven by the nationwide impact of inflation and climate change. 2023 was the worst-ever year in insurance losses due to climate-related disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes and flooding, with 2022 the worst year prior to that. The combined damage for both years exceeded $257 billion, according to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

During Monday’s listening session, which took place both in-person in Raleigh and online via videoconference, dozens of members of the public raised their concerns to staff members from the state Department of Insurance. Some said their own insurance rates had already increased by as much as 100% in recent years.

Many noted that senior citizens, disabled veterans and others living on fixed incomes could be hit particularly hard by the proposed rate hike.

Maggie Wallem Rowe, an AARP volunteer and homeowner in Haywood County, was among those who urged the state Department of Insurance to reject the proposed rates. She noted that consumer advocates have warned that severe rate increases in Florida, California, Colorado, Louisiana and Texas have “wreaked havoc” on homeowners in those states.

“The size of the increase proposed in North Carolina will have a similar effect,” Rowe said. “Instead of putting the risk onto consumers with premium increases, thin policies and higher deductibles, the insurance industry should be preparing for climate risk by working with policyholders, businesses and communities with loss-prevention partnerships.”

Christal Howell, who lives in Wayne County in Eastern North Carolina, said she and her husband had just bought their first home. They currently have a combined annual income of about $70,000, she said.

“These rate increases will make us choose between paying our mortgage and groceries for our children,” Howell said. “We do have two small children. We are the new generation of homeowners. … If rates continue to increase, we will and already have considered leaving the state to live in a state that better benefits our bottom line.”

North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey was not present for Monday’s meeting – a point noted by several speakers during the six-hour-long session.

The state Department of Insurance did not respond to a request for comment from BPR on Causey’s whereabouts. Causey, who is running for reelection in 2024, has also come under recent scrutiny for hiring a friend and political donor as a part-time driver, with a salary as high as $84,000 a year.

In a three-minute video posted on the state Department of Insurance website last week, Causey defended his handling of the issue, noting that the North Carolina Rate Bureau is separate from his office and that the rate bureau historically requests a steep increase in anticipation of a negotiation with the state.

“As your insurance commissioner, I am committed to fighting for lower rates for you, the consumer. That’s exactly what I’ve done in the past and will continue to do this year,” Causey said.

In 2022, the Rate Bureau proposed an average statewide increase of 24.5%, which was eventually negotiated down to 7.9%.

Under state law, the Department of Insurance has 50 days to respond to the Rate Bureau’s proposal, after which the matter would likely head to a public hearing.

Some of those who spoke out on Monday are from counties that would see a single-digit rate increase but expressed concern about the impact the move would have on friends and family elsewhere in the state.

Madison County resident Michael Bianco has lived in North Carolina for four years. Bianco said he would see a 4.3% increase under the proposed rates, but his mother, who lives in Brunswick County, would see a 71.4% increase.

“Now, that’s crazy for someone on a fixed income that has no other way to get an income,” Bianco said. He added: “Someone should pay attention to this and stand up for the voters and the citizens and not these companies.”

Homeowner Susan Baum lives in New Hanover County, which would see an increase of 43% or higher. She said that her insurance had already increased by “a full hundred percent” this year and that the state had not provided answers to the public’s questions about the sudden, steep nature of the proposed rate hikes.

“Where is the justification for this?” she asked. “If we saw some justification, maybe we could get on board. There’s no justification for this.”

Felicia Sonmez is a reporter covering growth and development for Blue Ridge Public Radio.