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How a Little-Known Flood Rule Has Left Some Louisville Homeowners Homeless

MSD home buyout
A stop work order from MSD.

Justin Brock bought a light blue two-story house off of River Road and Riverside just shy of two years ago. The exact date was June 14, 2013—his birthday.

This was the first house Brock ever bought. Just a couple weeks after buying the house, he moved in his newborn daughter. As he put it, this house was full of his “hopes and dreams.”

That’s all gone, Brock said. Right now, Brock hasn’t lived in his house for a couple months and is pretty sure he will never move back in.

A bad flood in his low-lying neighborhood near the Ohio River devastated the bottom floor this past March. The flood was the result of some unusual weather: more than 27 inches of snow that swelled the river, combined with almost 22 inches of rain in the spring.

As a result, four feet of water—originating from the sewer system and then the river—eviscerated his heating, cooling and electrical system—as well as his appliances and furniture, among other things. The house is now unlivable.

At the time, though, Brock said he didn’t panic. Brock, who works for a mortgage company, had decided long ago to beef up his flood insurance protection beyond what was necessary because he knew his house was in a flood plain.

“I felt very good with it just flooding the first floor that I had more than enough insurance to cover this,” Brock said. “I was not worried about it at all.”

What Brock didn’t know is that he had a serious problem.

As part of an effort to keep flood insurance premiums low, Louisville Metro Council members put in place some strict rules in 2006. Among them, a local ordinance prohibits homeowners from making repairs to their house totaling more than 50 percent of the home’s value over a 10-year period.

Like Louisville, cities across the country participate in the national flood insurance program. Stricter rules like Louisville’s 50 percent rule equate into good “community ratings” for the city, which translates into better rates for homeowners.

What Brock didn’t know is that when he bought his house in June 2013, repairs were already over 45 percent. So, after a flood wrecked his house, he now owns a home he can’t live in or repair.

What’s worse, Brock said, is that he didn’t know about any of this: the total amount of past repairs or the rule.

“If I would have known what I know now, there is no way I would have bought the home,” he said.

Brock blames Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District—the agency that enforces this 50 percent rule and was tasked to act as the city’s floodplain manager.

 

Justin Brock's home in the Riviera neighborhood.

Both efforts want to come up with a short term plan for these roughly 30 homes that are unlivable and yet prohibited from repairs. They’ll also consider some long-term solutions aimed at tackling what to do with the other 12,000  homes sitting in the city’s floodplains.

So far, home buyouts are on the table—so is increasing transparency and disclosure, among other things.

For Brock, though, a lot of the damage is already done.

Days after he bought his house, his daughter was born with chronic health problems. Medical bills eventually forced him into bankruptcy. So, the mortgage rate he got two years ago is gone. This means it will be several years before Brock can buy a house again.

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“It’s been a very depressing situation,” he said. “I am not a very emotional guy but I have cried myself to sleep several nights over this.”

Brock said he’s trying to work out a way to pay less on his mortgage every month so that he could try to rent a place to live.

“They failed us,” he said. “They really failed us and they have put us in a really bad position. And you know my mortgage each month and I have an inhabitable home.”

For now, Brock is forced to live at his mother’s house until something is figured out.