The U.S. government can't keep paying to repair homes that flood over and over, says a leading House Republican.
"The federal government is encouraging and subsidizing people to live in harm's way," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling in an appearance on CNBC Thursday. "At some point God is telling you to move."
Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, was referring to the National Flood Insurance Program. The federal insurance covers flood damage for homes, which most most homeowner policies do not cover. Buyers purchasing a property at risk of flooding are generally required by mortgage lenders to have a government flood policy.
He cited a modest home outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that has flooded more than 40 times that has cost the program nearly $500,000. Another home in Houston worth $100,000 has filed $1 million in claims due to multiple floods, he said.
Statistics back up Hensarling's concern that homes that have been damaged by multiple floods are draining the program. Less than 1% of nearly 5 million flood insurance policyholders collect 25-30% of the claims because they file repeatedly, according to analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
"We would be better off, they would be better off if frankly we bought out a lot of these properties and returned them to moisture absorbing soil and had it be part of a flood control plan," he said. "Maybe we pay for the home once, maybe we even pay for it twice, but at some point the taxpayer has got to quit paying and you've got to move."
The flood insurance program was nearly $25 billion in debt even before hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria hit. Estimates are that those storms will cause tens of billions dollars in additional claims.
"We have a bankrupt program that is essentially funded by a bankrupt nation," he said, citing the fact that the total national debt has now hit $20 trillion. But getting reform for the program through Congress is tough, he admitted.
"A lot of these communities are concerned about the loss of their tax base," he said. "Other people look upon this as essentially a form of entitlement spending, having federal taxpayers subsidize their premiums. So this is tough political sledding."
He said he still hopes reform can pass.