Home Elevation Program Helps Demystify the Process

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The Takeaway: Home elevation education.


Alison Higgins, the Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Key West, Florida, and Caroline Horn, Manager for Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe (FIRM), a local non-profit, are leading an effort to help homeowners elevate their homes out of the floodplain. Along with their partners, they developed trainings for contractors and homeowners and educational materials that are demystifying the process and increasing knowledge on home elevation. These informational materials help answer questions around costs, methods, barriers, permitting, duration, and financing. Read on to learn more about their approach to developing the Keyswide Home Elevation Education Project.

“One of the first things I tell people is to plan to elevate.”
Alison Higgins
Alison Higgins Sustainability Coordinator City of Key West, Florida

Lessons Learned

  • Have local examples. Alison shared that attendees wished they had more local examples of home elevation projects for the contractor workshop.
  • Being able to hire and partner with the right people is key. The City of Key West and Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe have a long relationship, so it was easy to partner on this project.
  • Have an internal support group to learn from. This is a place where the municipalities can talk about the issues and potential solutions, and work together to address needs.
  • Get the critical information when you have the chance. Alison is going to elevate her home and plans to document the whole experience to help homeowners address their questions and concerns.
  • Get help to navigate funding. Monroe County is helping the municipalities navigate the Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant program, which could provide homeowners funding to elevate their homes. The effort is being led by the Monroe County Land Authority.

The Process

Alison Higgins, Sustainability Coordinator for the City of Key West, Florida, says that this endeavor has been a long time coming. City staff and homeowners have been asking for information on home elevation for a while, but there was never enough time or money.

“So many people in the community wanted to know how to elevate their homes,” Alison shares, “but were afraid of the costs and didn’t know where to start.” Then a grant opportunity through Sea Grant provided resources to help develop the program.

Contractors’ Workshop

The workshop they hosted for contractors was a bit serendipitous, according to Alison. “We hadn’t planned on doing this course, but we came across an existing one from Virginia (Home Raising Academy) created by Resilient Enterprise Solutions, and knew the people involved.” The group working in Virginia was able to conduct their workshop in another location, so Alison, along with Caroline Horn, manager for Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe (FIRM), jumped at the chance to partner with them.

Caroline was as eager as Alison to bring the much-needed information to area residents. “A lot of people want to explore the possibility of elevating their homes, but they don’t even know where to begin,” she says. “We wanted to get first-hand knowledge from folks who had elevated so we can share that with our community.”

Some of FIRM’s board members who work in the construction industry helped get the word out about the training through the Florida Keys Contractors Association. A donation to FIRM paid for one government staff person from the county and each of the Keys’ five municipalities to attend.

The training covered FEMA floodplain management guidelines, home elevation fundamentals, building types, funding sources, and examples of elevation projects. All attendees received continuing education credits. Alison said if they conduct another contractor workshop, they’d like to make it shorter, more technical, and have local examples.

Local governments cannot recommend contractors, but can recommend programs that vet contractors, so the team tried to help both contractors and homeowners by offering contractors the opportunity to be listed as a preferred contractor on the FIRM website. The contractors were required to fill out a request for qualifications (with questions about insurance coverage, any legal battles, experience working in the Keys, and more). While not many contractors filled out the paperwork, Alison says, “We found out that contractors are really busy, but we do have a few contractors who sent in the information and are listed on the site.”

Homeowners’ Workshop

Alison and Caroline created a five-part video workshop that covered the project summary and goals, information on why to elevate and retrofitting, steps to elevating, traditional funding options, and FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance grant funding. FIRM’s board members contributed to the presentations, along with the Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Coordinator from the Land Authority. The virtual trainings were conducted on multiple days at various times to accommodate as many people as possible.

Each workshop had a module specific to one of the local governments that featured building officials explaining ordinances specific to their locale (e.g., height, stormwater control, setback considerations). The workshops included information on home elevation, who to contact, and which services each municipality offers to help with elevation. Homeowners also learned how to read flood insurance rate maps to determine how high to elevate their homes. They also learned about height considerations and insurance savings, historic home considerations, and where to find their zone maps. These training videos are available on FIRM’s YouTube channel.

Partnering on the workshops also helped the municipalities align more closely with the county and the FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance grant program, which could be a potential source for home elevation funding. The county’s Land Authority is helping applicants with the grant process.

Home Elevation Project Summaries

To help familiarize homeowners with the home elevation process, Alison, Caroline, and partners developed home elevation project summaries. The summaries provide details about houses, such as year built, type of construction, foundation type, construction company, home elevation method, financial details, length of project, lessons learned, and reasons for elevating, along with construction photos. They even provide the home address so people can see what the finished project looks like. The home project summaries can be accessed from the project website on FIRM’s website. Homeowners can also download an elevation checklist.

“It was really hard to get information about these projects, “Alison says. “Contractors are busy and it’s hard to get in touch with them. But once we did, they provided lots of details and shared other home elevation projects.”

The team also searched the Key West permitting system to find details. This proved challenging, since most of the elevation projects triggered the need for a permit—whenever a home went over the 50-percent improvement requirement, meaning it needed to come up to code. This meant that elevation-specific construction costs and details were harder to pull out. Additionally, itemized cost information is hard to tease out, since most of the time it’s not one contractor doing all aspects of an elevation project. Also, contractors often don’t want to share cost information, since its proprietary and could affect their business.

In addition to the project summaries, the team is working on a new resource that will help homeowners get a project estimate within $5,000 to $10,000. They are working to develop a matrix that walks the homeowner through a series of questions about their home features, such square footage, footprint, number of floors, and type of construction. Alison also says that going forward, the FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance process will require detailed information on project costs, so any project funded through this mechanism will have this information, which can help inform future materials.

Getting the Word Out

The project team worked with several existing programs to reach out to homeowners—specifically to reach low-income homeowners to let them know there was help. They worked with Habitat for Humanity’s Brush with Kindness program, which helps homeowners improve the exterior of their homes. The other partner was the County Weatherization Assistance Program, which shared contacts. They also used press, radio, social media, Florida Keys Contractors Association, and real estate professionals to get the word out. Alison and Caroline also do many talks about the effort.


Next Steps

A longer-term goal of the project is to get a bundled quote, if there is a desire from multiple homeowners to have their homes elevated. Alison and Caroline have been exploring this. They have also been investigating funding and financing options. The Keys’ municipalities and Monroe County formed a planner’s forum to discuss how they can proactively plan mitigation measures for setback, imperviousness, build-out, and other non-conforming property issues for homeowners seeking to elevate.