Three years ago, Florida lawyer Eric Glazer offered a dire warning: The state’s condo buildings faced an “absolutely avoidable” crisis stemming from years of willfully neglected maintenance combined with lax government oversight.
Writing on his blog “Condo Craze and HOAs”, Glazer warned that building after building lacked the savings to fund increasingly common repairs. He understood, he wrote, why it’s hard to get condo and homeowners associations to set aside money for maintenance,especially for retirees on limited incomes.
Still, he said, hoping that cracking concrete and leaky roofs would fix themselves was gambling with property and lives.
“So many people, especially seniors, are rolling the dice thinking that none of these repairs will be necessary while they own the property. That may be true for now, but eventually,everyone rolls a 7,” Glazer predicted. “I see buildings getting older and unavoidable repairs coming on strong. I also see hurricane seasons becoming active with the potential to cause catastrophic results to our communities.”
In the wake of the June 24Surfside condo collapse that has caused 90 confirmed deaths through Sunday, Glazer takes no pleasure in his prediction being right. While investigators have not yet determined a cause, owners of Champlain Towers South had been told in 2018of structural issues with cracking concrete – and then argued for years about paying for repairs.
That tragedy has jolted some local governments into deploying building inspectors and condo associations into hiring engineers to look for damage, a USA TODAY Network survey of communities along the Atlantic and Gulf
coasts found. Others are discussing options while waiting for more information.
Yet even those that take action face a challenge in pushing condo associations to foot the bill for more inspections and the repairs they may uncover, experts caution.
Compounding risks ignored for years
A largely hands-off, low-tax approach helped Florida’s economy boom during the late 1970sand early 1980s as retirees flocked south from more expensive states. But that has led to what some experts describe as widespread complacency from both governments and the HOA and condo boards responsible for maintaining the buildings.
In Florida, government building inspectors typically set foot in a condo building only before it’s occupied.
On top of that, condo associations routinely waive a state requirement requiring them to set aside money for repair costs. Only a few jurisdictions in Florida, including Miami-Dade County, require inspections of tall buildings, and the 12-story Champlain Towers South was in the midst of the county’s 40-year recertification process when it collapsed.
And money that might have gone toward educating HOA and condo associations about their legal responsibilities
has routinely been diverted by the Florida Legislature, a USA TODAY Network investigation found. Lawmakers siphoned off $65 million funded through condo association fees since 2008, nearly 40% of the $167 million raised during that time.
Glazer, who has been warning of these risks for years, said he hopes the Surfside tragedy will spur needed action, both by the independently elected condo association boards and law makers who have the power to mandate tougher oversight.
“I’m all in favor of having the government being hands off — except when it comes to giving people enough rope to hang themselves with,” Glazer said. “The reality is that nobody ever thought for a second that a building could collapse the way it did. Now we know a building can collapse, and if there’s any good that comes out of this tragedy, it’s the future lives that will have been saved.”
Unlike single-family homes where the owner is solely responsible for the property inside and out, condo owners bear responsibility for the interior of their units and pay monthly maintenance fees to share the costs of upkeep for the building, its grounds and common areas like elevators.
But that can mean elected condo boards must persuade their neighbors to pay more so that the association can build reserves sufficient to cover the costs of major repairs, like a new roof or restoration of balconies. Under Florida law, condo associations are supposed to set aside money each year so they can afford to replace, for instance, the roof at the end of a 20-year lifespan. But the law also allows condo associations to skip that step if they wish, holding down short-term costs.
The Surfside collapse demonstrated the potential consequences of those decisions.
In that case, an engineer hired by the condo association in 2018 warned of concrete deterioration that could “expand exponentially” if repairs weren’t made. Ultimately, the condo association faced a bill of more than $16 million with barely more than $700,000 in reserves. Residents agreed to impose assessments ranging from $80,190 to $150,330 per unit to cover the costs. “It’s your neighbors, retired school teachers, former accountants, working people,” said Jim Emory, a licensed public engineer with more than 30 years of experience in Florida.”You’ve got condo board members thinking to themselves, ‘I know that Mary in Unit 3 can’t afford it.’ Maybe the board members themselves can’t afford it.”
Emory is the president of Cocoa Beach-based Keystone Engineering & Consulting, whichprovides condo building inspections and manages maintenance projects. Since the Surfsidecollapse, his firm is fielding as many inquiries a day from condo boards as they usedto handle in a month.
While a qualified expert is needed to properly diagnose problems, buildings will oftentimesshow signs of deterioration that anyone can see, Emory said.
“A lot of people are nervous. They know they’ve neglected their buildings and they wantreassurance,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for folks to ignore the signs of damage because theanswers are unpleasant. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.”
Emory said he and his staff are essentially tripping over government building inspectors now— a much-needed change given that condo boards have been shirking their responsibilities.
“They are out looking for anything that’s even remotely a safety concern. Because none ofthem wants to end up on TV like in Surfside,” he said. “I don’t know how aggressive they’regoing to get, but changes are coming, and it’s definitely for the better.”
Varying responses to Surfside condo collapse
In Volusia County, home to Daytona Beach, the county chair said council members had been inundated with emails. “The public is demanding something be done,” said Jeff Brower, adding that he plans to bring the matter up at the council’s July 20 meeting.
“We’ve got structures on the beachside that have been there 40 years, and the salt air is justdestructive. I think we’d be remiss not to take this warning from South Florida,” Brower said. “I want to be known as the safe place to come and vacation.”
Brower proposed requiring an inspection 10 years after construction, with its results determining how often future inspections are required. He said the costs should be paid by condo associations and hoteliers, not taxpayers.
“I know it’s an extra cost,” he said. “… But what is a human life worth?”
In Palm Beach County, Boca Raton Councilman Andy Thomson said the oversight that comes with an inspection program would help keep residents safe, given that HOA boards are often reluctant to assess property owners for maintenance.
“The condos should really be doing that themselves,” he said, “but condo boards are notorious for not necessarily moving quickly, so having that kind of process that we’re contemplating really draws the line and says, ‘Look, we understand you all have had plenty of time to do this, but this is really the deadline, and you need to do this now.’”
In Riviera Beach, north of West Palm Beach, building officials urged owners to conduct inspections of structures 25 years or older. Jupiter town officials are investigating how other communities inspect tall, coastal buildings, and Lake Park officials have joined a countywide effort to create standardized inspections.
Lake Park’s building official, Shane Kittendorf, said the town will now mandate that new buildings built near the ocean have extra protective coatings on steel parts and additional waterproofing on ocean-facing balconies.
But preparation only goes so far, he said: “Something of this nature is only as good as long asthe HOA maintains it.”
Other communities are taking more of a wait-and-see approach. Officials in West Palm Beach, Sarasota, Bay County and Panama City all said they are considering how to proceed.
Daytona Beach Shores building official Fred Hiatt noted the city’s code of ordinances includes guidance set by the American Society of Civil Engineers granting officials the power to “periodically inspect buildings and structures.”
“We’re constantly in these buildings for a variety of different permitting reasons,” Hiatt said. “Anytime we see evidence of structural deterioration, we require them to retain an engineer.”
Hiatt said crafting different sets of rules for every community in Florida could prove tricky, both for construction companies and building officials.
“I don’t think the solution is a city-by-city, county-by-county thing. It needs to be statewide,”Hiatt said. “Right now, I’m looking to the engineers and investigators down in Surfside and if they’re able to determine what the cause was. Before we get those facts, I think it would be premature.”
Not just Florida reacting to Surfside
In neighboring Alabama, Gulf Shores officials have long conducted inspections of tall buildings every three years. They expanded the program to all rental properties regardless of height eight years ago after a wooden deck collapsed on a condo rental.
Because Gulf Shores sees so many hurricanes, city officials said, they routinely inspect buildings for storm damage, which also gives them a chance to uncover more serious issues.
“We feel very confident and comfortable in our ability to understand what’s happening with these buildings and make sure our properties are safe,” Gulf Shores city spokesman Grant Brown said.
Orange Beach, Alabama, has left decisions on inspections up to condo associations, but city officials are now considering whether to mandate them in the wake of Surfside. “Has it created discussion? Absolutely,” said City Administrator Ken Grimes. “I don’t think it’s just coastal communities. Anyone with high-rise buildings (is) talking about the what-ifs.”
Like in some Florida towns, officials in Hilton Head, South Carolina, are contacting building owners and recommending that they schedule regular inspections.
New Jersey is another state that doesn’t require inspections after buildings are occupied,but Edge water Borough Administrator Greg Franz said the Surfside collapse has prompted new conversations about what could be done for high-rises on the Hudson River and the state’s “Gold Coast.”
That was the question at the City Place in Edge water, a condo building undergoing a four-year, $8 million repair project launched when inspectors found steel reinforcing bars inside its concrete walls had began rusting, weakening the structure.
The work began two years ago, said Jim Tracy, the chairman of the condo’s board of directors. But instead of being grateful the inspection found flaws before they could get worse, “people wanted to recall me and they wanted a new board of directors,” Tracy said.“They didn’t want to hear the truth.”
Ultimately, the people who own the buildings are responsible for their upkeep, experts said.More government inspections might help nudge them to do the right thing in a timely fashion, they say, and stricter requirements for reserves can help make sure condos can afford the inevitable repairs that crop up.
That’s why Glazer, the prescient condo attorney, is now predicting change for an industry that’s been making bad bets for too long.
“Everybody’s certainly nervous now because we now know this can happen. That really has stirred the pot, really gotten a lot of board members nervous,” Glazer said. “My phone is ringing off the hook from boards that are now wanting to do the right thing. I can only tell them that what they’re doing is so dangerous, it’s playing Russian roulette by not putting money away for repairs.”
Contributing: Nathaniel Cobb, Mary Helen Moore, James Coleman, Kirsten Fiscus, Victoria Villanueva-Marquez, Hannah Morse, Kristie Cattafi, Derek Gilliam and Katie Wedell of theUSA TODAY Network.