A federally appointed team of engineering experts are investigating the causes of the 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside in June, killing 98 people. While it is essential to understand the science behind the tragedy, the collapse also revealed dangerous gaps in the management and maintenance of condominiums in Florida. That’s why a new report from a task force of a section of the Florida Bar is such a strong starting point as the legislature seeks to prevent another disaster.
In the aftermath of the collapse, the bar tasked the task force to consider whether Florida should change any laws or regulations to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again in the future. The recommendations, released last week, include significant changes, ranging from requiring regular building inspections to holding condominium associations accountable for necessary repairs. Among the proposed reforms:
– Regular checks. Only two counties in Florida – Miami-Dade and Broward – require local authorities to recertify that a building is safe, and this provision only applies after a building has reached the age of 40. But Florida has over 1.5 million residential condos, and of those, nearly 600,000 are at least 40 years old, with about 2 million people living in condos 30 years of age or older. In other words, a large universe of Floridians lives in these aging buildings. The Law Society’s task force recommends structural inspections every five years. This should provide timely notice of any significant deterioration and give condominium associations time to budget for repairs.
– Reinforcement of reserves. Condominiums generally finance major repair projects by using reserves or by imposing a special levy on owners. But existing loopholes allow condominium associations to waive or reduce their reserves, which may be more financially acceptable to residents, but which may differ from much-needed repairs. The task force recommends tightening the law to provide more money for long-term maintenance. And it would make it easier for condo associations to adopt appraisals or borrow money for major repairs, which could fund essential rehabilitation projects and extend the life of a building.
– Increase transparency. The Law Society’s task force would also increase transparency so that condominium boards, residents and government building officials are all better informed about a building’s structural integrity and the plan to keep it safe. . Florida law currently has no obligation to report and track condo maintenance records. The working group recommends a standard template for inspection records and more document sharing between local governments, condominium associations, and property owners and buyers. Having more of an eye on the condition of these buildings, and in real time, could prevent more needed repairs from falling through the cracks.
It is always tempting to respond to a tragedy by tilting the scales too far in the opposite direction – by enacting sweeping reforms that are both well-intentioned and over the top. In this case, the Law Society’s task force came up with a thoughtful and measured plan for debate. Its report recognizes that building safety and the condominium market are intertwined, as well as the inherent conflict that elected condominium boards face when imposing reviews. He carefully noted that the task force was “not suggesting that a significant percentage” of the 912,000 condominium units that are 30 years or older were not being well maintained or managed. And he came up with those recommendations in time for lawmakers and the public to consider before the legislative session begins in January.
The Bar’s working group contributed to a more comprehensive and responsible response to the disaster and presented some practical reforms that should improve the life and management of condominiums. They deserve the same consideration from the Legislative Assembly.