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Sub-grade apartment dwellers out of luck on flood insurance

FARGO -- Kathy North's apartment on the south side sits about three miles from the Red River, but given this year's ominous spring flood forecast, she wasn't taking any chances.

Basement flood insurance
Kathy North's lower-level apartment in Fargo has large windows that are above ground, but she, and other renters in similar lower-level units, can't get any kind of flood insurance. Dave Wallis / The Forum

FARGO -- Kathy North's apartment on the south side sits about three miles from the Red River, but given this year's ominous spring flood forecast, she wasn't taking any chances.

She wanted to buy flood insurance.

But because the floors of her apartment sit a few feet below ground level, the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers it a basement apartment, making her ineligible for coverage under the National Flood Insurance Program.

North said FEMA officials told her she had two options: relocate or save her money to hire a moving company to haul her possessions to higher ground if a flood comes.

"I'm thinking to myself, move it where?" she said. "And so, when I started thinking about it, it is a form of discrimination against people who rent."


Flood insurance for contents is available to renters, but not those living in basement apartments.

"It's just not available, and it's a concern, because when people need that, hopefully there would be some way to protect that," said Norm Ashford, flood insurance specialist at FEMA Region VIII headquarters in Denver. "But the policy the way it was built 40 years ago ... just didn't include that."

North and her husband, Mark, moved into their apartment near West Acres mall 18 years ago. They chose a bottom-floor unit so their daughter could run and jump around without disturbing neighbors below, she said.

"We like it. I don't want to have to move," she said. "And I shouldn't be forced to move just because there's the possibility of flooding ... and I can't get flood insurance. Even though I might never use it, it would make me feel a lot better knowing that I had it."

Because the apartment's floors lie below where the dirt meets the foundation outside, the apartment is subject to FEMA's basement coverage limitations.

"If the actual inside floor is below that level, we call it sub-grade, and if it's sub-grade on all four sides, it is essentially a basement," Ashford said. "So, essentially, once they get classified as a basement, there's no way that they can protect their contents and finish."

Certain basement contents are covered by flood insurance: utilities, washers and dryers, window air conditioners, freezers and the food in them, Ashford said. It also covers damage to the furnace and water heater and the building's foundation, he said.

But FEMA doesn't have a contents-only policy available for sub-grade apartment renters such as North, so they're not eligible for that coverage.


Ashford said there has been discussion over the years about changing the policy toward basements, and FEMA is reviewing the flood insurance program. But it would take years for changes to go into effect, he said.

Mary Morro, a sales assistant at Nodak Mutual Insurance Co. in Fargo, said she has written only "a handful" of flood insurance policies for renters over the years. Like homeowners insurance, renters insurance doesn't cover flooding, and Morro said she's not aware of any riders that do.

During a recent visit with a client, Morrow said, she contacted NFIP officials just to clarify that flood insurance wasn't available for sub-grade apartment tenants.

"They said, 'Well, make friends with your upstairs neighbors and take your stuff up there,' " she said. "I had to laugh a little bit, but the guy sitting here, he didn't really like that answer."

North said she hopes speaking out will help spread the message to other renters.

"It's not about me personally," she said. "I just want people to be aware that this exists."

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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