Why a 12-story Surfside condominium collapsed into rubble in the predawn hours of June 24 is still undetermined, but much about what preceded those fateful moments has since emerged.
Reports of the infighting over the cost of $9 million in repairs on the condo association board of Champlain Towers South have led to new inspections requirements for older condos in Miami-Dade County and Boca Raton. And a Broward County task force has come up with 17 suggestions for changing Florida law that hit legislators’ inboxes this past week.
Those recommendations are the result of 27 hours of discussions among lawmakers, city leaders, condo association boards, condo lawyers, land use experts and a structural engineer, Broward County Mayor Steve Geller said. They heard testimony from specialists in condo law, building officials, engineers and insurance experts, among others.
“The unanimous consensus of the committee was to encourage better maintenance of condominiums, as being much cheaper in the long run than making expensive structural repairs caused by a lack of maintenance,” Geller, a former state Senator from 1998 to 2008, wrote to legislators.
Among the major recommendations for rewriting state law:
- Institute a statewide building inspection that would scrutinize all condo buildings that are 30 years old or older, with subsequent inspections every 10 years thereafter.
- Require engineers that perform work for condo associations to file a copy of their reports with the local government.
- Add “concrete restoration” to the existing reserves required for condo associations. Florida statutes now require a reserve be kept for a condo’s paint, roof, paving and repairs that cost more than $10,000.
- Create less wiggle room for funding and monitoring reserves. Currently a simple majority of a condo association’s members can agree to skip funding the reserves that state law requires for condo buildings. The committee proposes requiring that 75% of the membership say yes if reserve funding is waived.
Updating Florida’s condo laws like this will increase assessments, said Jeffrey Rembaum, a Palm Beach Gardens lawyer certified in condo and planned development law. But maintenance costs are a certainty when one buys a cube of air bounded by concrete or wood and described in recorded covenants.
“It’s a question of pay me now or pay me later,” said Rembaum, who works with the firm Kay Bender Rembaum, which also has Pompano Beach offices.
“The state and the cities could do a better job of making sure that the owners are informed about the conditions of the building so they can plan maintenance projects appropriately,” he said.
The only condominium legislation filed so far involves fraud, but Will Simons, President of the Fort Lauderdale office of Association Reserves, said this could be a “pivotal moment” for modernizing Florida’s condo regulations while the memory of the disaster is still fresh.
The reports of the infighting on the Champlain Towers South’s condo board over the cost of urgent repairs ring all too familiar to Simons. From circumstances he has read about and other condos’ situations he has worked with, it’s clear the collapse might have been avoided, he said.
His company specializes in helping condo associations plan for inevitable repairs that will crop up. And he can’t help but think about how he could have helped that board before 98 people died.
“I believe there were accounts going back to the 1990s and the early 2000s about leaks coming from the pool deck,” Simons said. “Maybe in the course of investigating that they would have found there were some major issues that needed to be fixed.”
Reserves must be built up, or a bank loan will be needed when repairs become an emergency, he said. Sometimes it’s hard to persuade people to pay for something that’s not a critical need at the moment.
“We deal with volunteer boards all day long that are presented with very difficult decisions to make,” Simons said, adding that repair needs often get kicked down the road.
His company has 11 offices in six different states, and in Florida law, he sees “a ton” of room for improvement for helping condo boards plan better. For one thing, Florida law doesn’t even require that condo associations do reserve studies that would determine how well they are planning for future repairs that will inevitably happen.
It’s not unheard that an elevator replacement will cost $1 million, he said.
“Florida is behind the times in terms of comparisons to other states,” he said, pointing out that California law requires these reserve studies be done every three years.
Broward’s committee also recommends a reserve study every three years.
“People need to understand the true cost of (condo) ownership,” Simons said.