Some might say it’s too soon. Too soon to talk politics and policy, when the search and rescue and recovery operations at the Surfside Champlain Towers South condominium collapse disaster are still tragically unfolding before our eyes.
But this is exactly the time to talk about what we can do to make sure this kind of disaster never happens again — when the unbearable grief is hardest to see, when the potential death toll is the hardest to comprehend.
Let’s be clear: 40-year-old buildings in the United States should never simply collapse. Period.
And we shouldn’t wait another moment before finding and embracing common-sense policies that make sure that is true. The main thing Florida can do — right now — is to enact a consistent statewide standard for building inspections.
In a state where our edifices are under constant attack — from salt, sand, water, storms, lightning, winds, surge and more — the most important next step we can take is to make sure the same standards are being met in every community in the Sunshine State.
In that spirit, we have urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to immediately establish a statewide task force of industry experts to determine the highest and best standards and other related policies that can improve the safety of Florida’s high-rise buildings. That task force could begin work now, so that its findings and recommendations can help guide Gov. DeSantis and the Legislature in enacting new state laws to cover this obvious need.
For those of us who have lived in Florida for many years, this overall approach feels familiar. In the wake of Hurricane Andrew, which at the time was the most devastating hurricane in history, Florida in 2002 adopted a statewide Florida Building Code. Among other things, the code mandated that new buildings must be able to withstand hurricane-force winds and have storm shutters or storm-resistant windows.
So that addresses buildings that are less than 20 years old. But what about older structures?
Requirements governing the frequency and thoroughness of inspections vary widely among Florida’s 67 counties and more than 400 cities and towns. Local governments often loudly resist legislation that takes away their authority by imposing statewide standards — but for safety issues like this one, such preemption is wholly appropriate.
A single, uniform statewide standard is the obvious solution. We inspect the elevators inside these buildings every year — so shouldn’t we similarly assess the safety of the buildings themselves more regularly?
In the meantime, condo boards and associations must step up as well. Owners’ dues should ensure that buildings and grounds are properly maintained, making safety a priority. But the responsibility shouldn’t fall on the dedicated volunteer board members themselves — because the work of inspecting buildings is highly technical and requires significant professional expertise.
We have actively advised condominium and homeowners’ association boards on a range of issues for the past 35 years, and we recognize that board members are often concerned about potential legal exposure from their board service. The most direct way to reduce that exposure is to make sure appropriate steps are being taken to maintain the buildings — and the health and safety of the people in them. And the best way to do that is to have a fiscal plan to use dues and other revenue for necessary repairs and maintenance.
Through consistent state standards and responsible policymaking at the association level, we can take great strides to guarantee that the Surfside tragedy remains a horrific aberration. The best way to honor the victims and their families is to take the steps necessary to make sure this never happens again.
After all, the issue here isn’t what new regulations will cost; it is about what they will save — lives.
God bless the Surfside victims and their families.
Peter S. Sachs and Louis Caplan are founding partners of Sachs Sax Caplan, P.L., one of the nation’s most experienced and respected law firms in the area of condominium law. The Boca Raton-based firm’s pioneering work in condominium and community association law has led to landmark changes that have shaped Florida community association law and established the firm as one of the foremost authorities in the field.