After the 1981 Harbour
Cay condominium collapse in Cocoa Beach killed 11
construction workers, lawmakers beefed up inspections of
After Hurricane Andrew destroyed more than 25,000 homes in 1992, local and state officials tightened up Florida building codes so houses would be built stronger.
The collapse of the Champlain Towers in Surfside on June 24, and the deaths of 98 people living there, will require a legislative response as well. Maybe directly related to the underlying cause, but that’s impossible to know until the cause is determined.
We do know that maintenance and oversight deficiencies baked into Florida law are getting new scrutiny because of the tragedy. And that’s where legislative leaders need to train their sights now.
Doing nothing is not an option. Champlain Towers has to be a wake-up call, just as those other disasters were.
We’re not so sure the Legislature will see it that way, to the peril of thousands. Lawmakers were a different breed when those other disasters occurred, more inclined toward solving real problems.
What we’ve watched unfold in recent years is an increasing interest in fighting culture wars. Nothing embodied that better than lawmakers’ fixation on riots that didn’t happen and election fraud that didn’t occur, instead of focusing on the state’s abysmal unemployment system and the affordable housing crisis.
A spokeswoman for Wilton Simpson says the Senate president is open to building code changes based on investigative findings of the collapse. That’s encouraging. But we urge Simpson to use his power to go ahead and establish a select committee on condo regulation.
The Florida Bar didn’t waste any time. It set up a task force immediately after the building collapse and expects to have recommendations for the Legislature before its January 2022 lawmaking session.
Lawmakers could start with the idea that hundreds of condominiums are being run by associations whose officers are usually unqualified when it comes to understanding the nuances of maintaining a large building and keeping it structurally sound.
It’s not the officers’ fault. Few of them are structural engineers. That’s just how the system is set up to govern condominiums, where responsibility for buildings is designed to be a shared effort and expense. The lack of expertise is, in many instances, an invitation to disaster.
The system falls short in other ways.
For one, when condo association boards vote on paying for expensive repairs, those officers are painfully aware that the residents they represent might push back against the extra costs. This is Florida, where people often move to escape high taxation and living expenses.
A New York Times account of the attempts to make repairs at Champlain Towers vividly illustrated the collision of what needed to be done versus what officers and residents were willing to do, and how that delayed needed work.
A 2018 estimate determined the structure needed $9 million in repairs as part of a 40-year recertification required by Miami-Dade County. Disputes raged, more time went by and the price tag went up to more than $15 million in 2020, with each unit having to pay between $80,000 and $200,000. Basically another mortgage that resulted in sticker shock and more delays to repairs, the Times reported.
It’s one thing for single-family homeowners to forgo a paint job. It’s another for condo associations to delay essential structural repairs to a multistory building.
Another problem the building collapse exposed was Florida’s lenient requirements for condo reserve funds.
A study of Champlain Towers’ reserve fund in March 2020 found that the condo association was expected to have just $706,000 in its reserve fund by January 2021, CNN reported earlier this month, though it needed some $10 million to make the repairs confronting it at the time.
In April the board decided to impose a $15 million special assessment to pay for the repairs, but time was running out.
While Florida law requires boards to maintain sufficient reserves, a majority of owners can overrule that. Plus, Florida passed a law in 2008 that made condo boards get a professional study of their reserves every five years, but that law was repealed in 2010.
The expense of paying for repairs can be overwhelming for some condo owners, many of whom are not wealthy. So the state needs to explore ways to help those who simply can’t afford a huge special assessment.
This is a complicated task for lawmakers. They have to weigh multiple interests, while bearing in mind the social and economic circumstances of people who live in Florida’s many condominiums.
What worries us the most, however, is that time will pass, memories will dim and lawmakers will simply move along. Or just make perfunctory changes. We’ve seen it before.
Not this time. Too many lives are at stake. Florida can’t allow a repeat of the horror of last month.
I wasn't happy to read the conclusion of this editorial and I responded to the Editorial Board as follows:
It’s always easy to blame the legislators in cases like that. Why don’t you want to blame the folks who lobbied the legislators against these bills and convinced them that association boards and the folks managing the associations, CAMs and association attorneys, have enough common sense to make their own decisions, without strong regulation from the government? The same people, like the members of the Florida BAR task force (chairman Bill Bahr), spoke against bills that might have avoided the disaster in Surfside. What do you think is being discussed at the meetings of that task force?
How to prevent regulations that would not be in the interest of attorneys and CAMs.
How to stop bills that would hold developers and contractors liable, or that would cost them more money.
If you would have been at the committee hearings of bills filed by Republican legislators (2004, 2008, 2014 and 2016 -- Julio Robaina and Alan Hays) you would have heard all the lobbyist from the law firms (Donna Berger – Becker Law), the Florida BAR (Peter Dunbar), CAMs and the CAI (Community Association Institute – Travis Moore) speaking out against enforcement of the statutes, mandatory reserves, reserve studies by qualified experts (architects and engineers) and timely certifications. You might remember that all D-House members voted in 2004 in the first vote on the House floor against HB 995, a bill that contained all these requirements.
Just wait: When it’s time for the next legislative session the same folks who now demand serious changes will try to water down bills that again contain all these requirements – as they did for all the past years since 2004, when the Condo Select Committee and the HOA Task Force came up with final reports asking to enact bills that contain all these requirements that may have prevented a tragedy like Surfside.
Do you know what has to be in a bill really preventing such
Here is the list:
This has over the years all been established by Task Forces and Select Committees. We don’t need more “task forces” because all the folks involved know what is really needed.
But this is against the interest of developers, attorneys, CAMs and realtors.
Jan Bergemann, President
Cyber Citizens For Justice, Inc.
1156 Tall Oaks Rd.
Deland, FL. 32720-1225