WINTER HAVEN | Gene Albritton sleeps uneasily.
Inside and out, the cement-block walls of his house are cracking, and it’s getting worse.
The floors have sunk 4 or 5 inches in some places.
He’s patched three roof leaks with tar paper.
His front yard is sinking, leaving huge gaps of missing dirt under his cement driveway.
A metal support under the house is broken.
Albritton is near broken, too.
The frail, 47-year-old with heart trouble, who lives on a small medical disability check, has been fighting with his home insurance company for months.
He said it’s been like spitting into the wind.
“I’m scared to live here, but I have no choice,” Albritton said of his 2843 Ave. O N.W. home in Winter Haven. “I’m afraid to wake up one morning with the house on top of me.
“I’m paying $1,600 a year for insurance — for what?”
His concerns are founded, according to his insurance agent.
“I wouldn’t live there either,” said Dick Lindley, an independent agent who helps clients find policies but does not work for the companies that insure them.
Albritton is like a lot of Floridians in one regard, officials say: It’s getting increasingly difficult in Florida to get sinkhole coverage with home insurance, and state residents who own property deemed high-risk pay nearly $4 billion a year to get special insurance policies.
Albritton’s house was built in 1956 in a neighborhood near Lake Cannon where soft ground can be prone to sinkholes.
In 2009, Steve Williams, a Winter Haven building contractor, fixed a badly cracked duplex belonging to Lynn and Brent Fogel that is directly across the street from Albritton.
Williams said when houses in the neighborhood were built, the land was low and soft, and it was covered with two feet of dirt to make it suitable for building. Only it wasn’t just dirt, he said; the fill included tree stumps, debris and whatever else.
Williams said workers had to dig 9 feet deep under the home to rid the ground of muck — what he calls “Jello” — to prepare a proper foundation on which to rebuild the Fogels’ house.
Houses in the area have been damaged by the combination of unstable soil, heavy truck traffic and roadwork, Williams said.
Polk County had to deal with that same gelatinous layer under Avenue O when the road was repaved in August and September 2010, Williams said. That work was followed by drainage-improvement work next to the road.
The county had to remove a layer that ran 8 to 10 feet deep, according to varying estimates.
People living in the neighborhood said Avenue O Northwest was repaved because it was sinking and cracking. “It was all dippy-do,” one man said.
It is undetermined whether there is a direct connection between the roadwork and the damage to homes in the neighborhood.
For Albritton, trouble struck in March this year, when, in “one night, overnight,” he said, the house shifted, sank and cracked.
Williams looked at Albritton’s home.
“It’s really bad,” he said. “The floor is settling, and the roof is settling.”
The roof is mainly what’s holding the house together — so far, Williams said.
Albritton’s home is about 30 feet from the street, and he said the road work had to contribute to his problems because of what it involved. Crews dug deep holes and refilled them with dirt that was pounded to compact it. During the work, heavy construction vehicles parked in front of his house.
“They had equipment out there the size of Sherman tanks,” Albritton said.
At least one insurance company — a different one from Albritton’s — has paid sinkhole claims in the area.
Beverlee Lewis, a Farm Bureau Insurance agent in Winter Haven, said her company has paid maximum policy limits in two cases. She said both were paid in full on sinkhole coverage.
“I know my personal opinion, a lot of heavy equipment causes homes to shake, and if you’re on soft ground, you’re going to have a problem,” Lewis said.
That could be a problem, according to the county.
“Obviously, the mucky soils we encountered could extend to (Albritton’s) property and be a contributing factor to his settlement issues,” said Bill Skelton, a spokesman for the Polk County Transportation Division.
But Skelton said Albritton has not filed a formal complaint with the county about the problem. He said if that happens, the county will investigate.
Without further investigation, he said, “we can’t say our work contributed to what might be the consequence of a naturally occurring condition over time.”
Albritton said he has been told by a lawyer to exhaust any avenue he might have with his insurance company before seeking redress from the county.
Albritton was insured in June 2010 by a company called National Risk Solutions and its associated company, GeoVera Insurance. His original $1,600 policy had sinkhole coverage.
But a year later, the renewal policy was amended:
“The peril of sinkhole collapse is no longer included as part of your policy. However, catastrophic ground cover collapse is provided,” the amendment said.
The problem with the new coverage is it requires a hole at least 5 feet deep and 5 feet wide, and Albritton, despite the damage to his house, has no huge hole visible.
Estimates on repairing his house run higher than $100,000, Albritton said. But his property is assessed by the Polk County Property Appraiser at just $25,000.
Formerly an office worker, Albritton has had six heart surgeries and two back surgeries and now receives a $900-per-month disability check.
Albritton bought his 500-square-foot house in unincorporated Polk County in 1997 for $20,000. He refinanced it for $23,000 in 2010, agreeing to pay $200 per month for 20 years.
An inspection associated with the refinancing was done at the same time road reconstruction began in August 2010. That inspection showed a clean bill of health for the house.
After filing his claim in March, GeoVera took months to answer and then denied the claim, Albritton said.
GeoVera has a Tallahassee office and said its standard procedure is to talk only with their insured customers about a claim. Company officials declined to speak with The Ledger.
“But they won’t talk to me either,” Albritton said.
Lindley, the Winter Haven insurance agent, said “it took a long time for GeoVera to process the claim because the company was looking for a way to pay” Albritton.
Because of the way the policy was worded, “they just couldn’t,” he said.
When Albritton received his renewal policy on June 3, 2011, it contained the switch from sinkhole coverage to catastrophic ground cover collapse.
But he said he thinks it should still have included sinkhole coverage because on May 25, 2011, he had paid $516 on the renewal. That was one week before GeoVera switched the coverage. Albritton has a dated receipt to prove it.
In other words, Albritton said: GeoVera took his money and later downgraded the coverage.
However, it appears the only way he can argue his contention is by suing, and Albritton said he has discussed his plight with a lawyer.
Albritton could have a case, said Tom Terfinko, assistant director of agent and insurer services for the Florida Surplus Lines Insurance Office. “Perhaps an unfair trade practice could be pursued.”
When Lindley got GeoVera to insure Albritton in 2010, Lindley said, there weren’t many alternatives. He said the only other choice was Citizens Property Insurance, and Albritton wouldn’t have gotten sinkhole coverage from Citizens, either.
GeoVera is a “surplus” insurance carrier. While the state approves surplus lines by making sure the companies have sufficient money to pay claims, it deems these insurers “unauthorized.”
People insured by such carriers do not have protection under the Florida Insurance Guaranty Act, according to the Florida Department of Insurance Regulation.
Surplus carriers insure high-risk property that authorized carriers don’t or won’t. And apparently there are plenty of them. Terfinko said $3.7 billion dollars in insurance premiums are being paid this year to surplus carriers.
Terfinko said the state and insurers have been “really cracking down” on sinkhole claim fraud. He said an offshoot of that is it’s getting harder for people to get sinkhole coverage.
That’s especially bad news for people living along Avenue O Northwest.
At the duplex across the street, Lynn and Brent Fogel live in the rear and rent out the front.
One day in early 2009, Lynn Fogel said, she walked past the rental and noticed a window was damaged and the outside of the building had cracked. She said once she got inside, she noticed the whole place was cracking.
She had sinkhole coverage, and the insurance company paid the maximum $96,500 to replace the rental unit.
Now, Fogel said, the nearly new tile in the front unit has been “popping all over the place.” She said she has talked with some other people living along her street and said she thinks six others have problems with settling soil.
Albritton deserves a better fate, Fogel said.
“Gene is a good person who is getting a really raw deal. I don’t understand why nobody is helping him. Nobody cares, and it’s just plain wrong.”