November 16, 2023

Navigating the Storm: Unraveling the Growing Insurance Challenges in Affordable Housing


The Current Landscape: The affordable housing sector is facing a challenging landscape with insurance premiums and deductibles on the rise due to the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters such as wildfires. This surge in costs, coupled with a shift in how insurers evaluate onsite incident risks, presents significant obstacles for developers. A recent Housing Finance article highlights the far-reaching effects, noting that elevated insurance expenses not only deplete cash flow for existing portfolios but also complicate the financing process for new projects. Many of our partners in the affordable housing developer space have reported experiencing substantial challenges. Insights from these conversations with developers reveal a notable increase in property insurance premiums and a rise in general liability insurance from 2023 to 2024. External factors such as climate change, labor/materials inflation, and supply chain disruptions contribute to these hikes. Developers are troubled by the reduced coverage provided by insurers. Additionally, the dwindling competition caused by insurance carriers leaving the state has created a monopoly that allows the few providers still in business to increase prices freely. 

Who Is Most Impacted: While the heightened insurance costs negatively impact all development agencies, the escalating insurance costs weigh disproportionately on affordable housing developers in high-risk rural areas, creating a significant challenge distinct from market-rate property owners. Unlike their counterparts who can potentially counter increased insurance expenses by adjusting rents, affordable housing owners face significant hurdles in absorbing these costs, jeopardizing their ability to provide affordable housing to vulnerable communities. Insurer mandates for costly wildfire mitigation measures, coupled with raised deductibles and limited coverage for wildfire damage, increase the strain on these developers. The impact is particularly severe for smaller development agencies, as highlighted in a recent Bloomberg article, emphasizing the urgent need for strategic interventions and policy reforms to sustain the long-term viability of affordable housing projects in these at-risk regions.

Insurance: What It Is and How It Functions: Insurance is a financial mechanism designed to protect individuals, organizations, and properties from unforeseen risks and losses. It operates on the principle of risk-sharing, where policyholders pay regular premiums to an insurance company. In return, the insurance company provides financial coverage or compensation in the event of specified events, such as accidents, natural disasters, or onsite incidents. Insurance is a vital tool for risk management, enabling individuals and entities to safeguard their investments and operations.

Commissioner Ricardo Lara outlined his approach to tackle the state’s bleak insurance landscape during the Just Future Summit in Oakland in October. One of his pivotal regulatory strategies involves allowing insurance companies to consider climate change risks when establishing insurance rates. This progressive step recognizes the escalating frequency and severity of wildfires in California, an issue of paramount importance for insurance firms operating in the region.

His approach aims to provide insurers with more flexibility while maintaining regulatory safeguards. Under these proposed rules, insurers can incorporate climate change risks into their rate-setting decisions. However, they must still seek state approval for any rate increases to protect consumers’ interests. Insurance companies that wish to qualify for these new rules must cover 85% of their statewide market share in wildfire-prone areas, promoting expanded coverage for high-risk regions. The deadline for finalizing these rules is December 2024, emphasizing the need for comprehensive solutions in adapting to the evolving insurance landscape.

Possible Solutions and Alleviation Strategies: As outlined in these Housing Finance and KQED articles, innovative and comprehensive strategies are essential to mitigate the impact of soaring insurance costs on affordable housing projects. These strategies can be implemented at both the project and system-wide levels, ensuring a holistic approach to the challenge.

At the Project and Organizational Level:

  1. Risk Assessment and Mitigation: By identifying specific risks associated with the region, they can take proactive steps to mitigate them. These measures could include implementing damage-minimizing strategies for natural disasters, such as fire-resistant construction materials or strategic landscaping.
  2. Collaborative Insurance Pools: By pooling resources and risks with similar development entities, developers can potentially negotiate better insurance terms and rates. These shared insurance pools can help mitigate the adverse financial impact faced by affordable housing developers/owners and smaller development agencies, particularly those operating in rural areas.
  3. Education and Capacity Building: This could involve training staff to better navigate insurance processes, understand policy terms, and strategically negotiate with insurers.

At the System-wide Level:

  1. Government-Backed Insurance Programs: These programs could offer insurance at subsidized rates, shielding affordable housing projects from market-driven increases.
  2. Public-Private Partnerships: Collaboration between governmental bodies and private insurers to create insurance products specifically designed for the needs of affordable housing developments can result in more reasonable insurance rates.
  3. Policy Advocacy and Reforms: Development agencies and industry associations can collectively advocate for policy reforms aimed at stabilizing insurance costs. These reforms could include regulations ensuring fair insurance pricing for affordable housing projects and preventing unjustified premium hikes.

In navigating the challenges posed by escalating insurance costs, a multifaceted approach that integrates strategies at both project and system-wide levels is crucial. By exploring innovative models, forming strategic partnerships, and advocating for supportive policies, the affordable housing sector can strive to ensure the long-term sustainability and affordability of projects.