Florida laws governing how condominiums are overseen and maintained must change, and change soon, or the state could see more catastrophes like the recent collapse of the 12-story Champlain Towers South in Surfside.


That was the view expressed by most of the speakers at a town hall meeting hosted by Miami-Dade County on condominium building safety on Monday morning.

"It's essential that we get answers ... to ensure a disaster like this can never, ever happen again," said Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cara, who co-chaired the meeting with Miami-Dade County Chairman Jose Diaz.

"Almost 100 lives were lost and there is no excuse for it," said Diaz.

Those who attended both in person and via video feeds included elected officials for Miami-Dade County and several other south Florida cities, state lawmakers, U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Maria Elvira Salazar, and representatives from the building industry.

'Maintenance is part of the upkeep'

Jose Gonzalez, president of the Builders Association of South Florida, said those in attendance all agreed that waiting 40 years to do a recertification of oceanfront high-rise condos as is currently required in Miami-Dade and Broward counties "is too long of a time." Buildings near the Atlantic Ocean coast deteriorate at a faster rate than those inland and should be inspected for structural integrity every few years, he said.

The oceanfront Champlain Towers South building that collapsed on June 24 killing 98 people in Surfside was built in 1981. An investigation of the collapse is ongoing. A USA Today Network survey of several coastal communities in Florida found at least 1,000 large condos near the ocean that are 40 years or older.

A team works to extricate remains as search and rescue personnel look on, atop the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condo building where scores of people remain missing more than a week after it partially collapsed, Friday, July 2, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. Rescue efforts resumed Thursday evening after being halted for most of the day over concerns about the stability of the remaining structure.

Condo buildings along the ocean need to be repainted at least once every three to five years in order to keep them protected from corrosion and deterioration from the salt air and water intrusion, according to experts. Repairs must also be made on a timely basis or even minor problems can eventually compromise the building's structural integrity.

Repainting oceanfront high-rise condos can be extremely expensive, as are inspections and making repairs, according to condo attorneys.

Florida has some of the strictest building codes in the nation, but under current state law, once condos are turned over by the developer to the residents, the sole responsibility for making sure those buildings are properly maintained and repaired is left up to the discretion of the condo owners associations.

Therein lies the chief problem, according to Gonzalez. "A lot of people forget that frequent inspection and maintenance is part of the upkeep of a building," he said.

But changing the state law to require building inspections on a more frequent basis is not enough, he said. County and city building departments also need more "manpower" to make sure condos are being inspected and that maintenance and repairs are done in a timely fashion.

Changing state law may not be enough

Gonzalez was one of several speakers who said the Florida Condominium Act should be changed to require inspections to only be conducted by licensed structural engineers or architect. Also, county and city building departments must be able to verify that both the inspections as well as the necessary repairs have been properly performed, he said.

"There's a lot of work to be done and there's going to be legislation that may sound nice, but may not be achievable," he warned.

One South Florida mayor who did not identify himself during the call spoke about the need for penalties for condo buildings that do not comply with timely inspections and repairs as well as a statewide standard for when those buildings should be up for recertification. Currently, Miami-Dade and Broward counties are the only two out of the state's 67 counties that require condo buildings to be recertified for occupancy, and then only starting 40 years after they are built.

Another unidentified city official said a requirement for condo buildings to be re-inspected for structural integrity should be required at least five years before the re-certification deadline in order to give condo associations enough time to make needed repairs.

In the case of Champlain Towers South, which collapsed June 24, millions of dollars in repairs were to have been completed by this year. But because of lengthy delays in starting those repairs, some experts estimate those repairs would not have been completed for at least another couple of years.

"There will always be delays," one mayor said. "If you were to require the (inspection) report to be done five years before the recertification, then we can actually enforce the statutes," he said.

Several of the speakers called for assistance from the federal government in the form of a low-interest loan program that could be made available for condo buildings.

State Rep.: Feds need to lend a hand

State Rep. Joe Geller (D-100th District) agreed. "We need to do what we can to get the federal government on board. Some of these buildings are old and the people living in them are old and on fixed incomes. Not everybody in a condominium is some wealthy retired person."

Larissa Svechin, interim mayor of Sunny Isles Beach in Miami-Dade County, said her city currently has 20 aging high-rise condos going through the recertification process. "Each will require $15 million in repairs. They are filled with people on fixed incomes. Without federal support, they are going to cut corners (on making repairs)," she said.

Wasserman Schultz said she has had several discussions with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to look at ways to increase safety standards for high-rise condos. "When it comes to safety, it's always essential that we have multiple layers of protection." she said.

What the federal government cannot do, she said, is hand out money to condo associations for repairs as grants. "We have to remember that these are private structures," she said.
Surfside Mayor urges patience

Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett cautioned the others in the town hall meeting from being quick to change state laws regarding condos.

"I think we absolutely have to focus on the cause (of the Surfside collapse) because the cause is going to drive the solution," said Burkett, who owns a company that invests and restores historic buildings.

"I think this collapse was a tragic anomaly," he said.

It could be a long wait to learn all the factors that contributed to the Surfside collapse, warned lead investigator Judith Mitrani, associate chief of the materials and structural systems division of the National Institute of Standards & Technology.

For an investigation of the scale and scope of the Champlain Towers South collapse, "the fastest we've done one was two-and-a-half years," she said. "It can take up to six years."

Another unidentified South Florida city mayor expressed the need to "think about all the possibilities" that could cause a condo building to collapse, not just fixate on the specific circumstances that led to the Champlain Towers South catastrophy.

Miami-Dade County plans to hold further town hall meetings to continue the discussion of what needs to be done to ensure the safety of condo buildings, said Cava and Diaz. A date for the next meeting has yet to be set.