As chair of a select committee appointed
by the governor and legislative leadership, then–state Rep.
Julio Robaina of South Miami traveled around the state
before the 2008 legislative session.
He talked to constituents about the most pressing issues of the day. And when he got to South Florida, he got an earful about condominium safety.
“The lack of maintenance for buildings by boards of directors emerged as a huge concern,” said Robaina, a Miami native and former mayor of South Miami who'd been monitoring disputes between condo owners and their boards for years.
That statewide conversation propelled him to file legislation creating a five-year structural inspection of condominiums over three stories tall to go hand in hand with a "reserve study" to determine how much to set aside for repairs and maintenance to avoid extraordinary assessments.
“We added that provision, which required structural inspections of the entire building, the roof, elevators, parking garage, all aspects of the construction of the condominium,” Robaina said in an interview with USA TODAY Network-Florida.
The bill was passed unanimously by both the House and Senate, and was signed into law by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.
Two years later, lawyers and lobbyists for the condominium associations, property managers and developers pushed back. They said the law placed a financial burden on condominium unit owners, especially elderly ones on fixed incomes.
They convinced lawmakers to repeal the five-year inspection provision Robaina had worked so hard to get into law in the first place, according to Robaina and others involved in the process.
But it was done in a way that Robaina didn’t see coming: It was snuck into the back of a 102-page, comprehensive building safety bill (HB 663) that had nothing to do with condominium associations.
“They buried that language ... It was a shameful tactic,” said Robaina, who voted for the building safety bill without realizing he also voted to repeal his own inspection rule. “Why would anybody vote against a bill when it’s about building safety?”
The sudden and under-the-radar repeal of a five-year inspection for condominium statute is an example of how powerful special interests with lots of money can — and often do — influence policymaking at the highest levels of state government.
"That’s the way business gets done in Tallahassee," said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan government watchdog. “There is so much political influence being applied to the legislative process (that) this is the end result: You see this type of stealth legislation that doesn’t even really get a full public vetting when it happens.
“So many decisions get made without putting the best interests of the public at the forefront ... They’re not looking to make condominiums safe," Wilcox said.
Unfortunately, the unit owners themselves suffer because they don't peddle much influence at the Legislature, said Eric Glazer, a condominium attorney who's been practicing for more than 30 years in South Florida and runs a condo law blog.
“The powers that be very much dictate what happens in this state when it comes to (condominium) association law," Glazer said.
Now, after last month's collapse of a 40-year-old beachside condominium tower in Surfside that hadn't been inspected until three years ago and has so far claimed 97 lives, state lawmakers are reviewing state law to see what changes need to made to prevent another disaster.
Everything is on the table, legislative leaders have said. Some ideas being discussed include mandatory and more frequent building inspections, requiring minimum reserve funds for maintenance, and fully funding condominium owner education programs.
"It's important that we gather all the facts and it's certainly something that we don't want to leave anything off the table," House Speaker-designate Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, said during a recent news conference.
"We will look at the facts and try to determine why this happened," he added. "I think it's important we align the solutions with the actual problems that occurred."
Legislative give and take
The legislative process is often a blunt matter of give and take, as lawmakers horse trade with each other to get their agendas across the finish line, Glazer said: "It's 'I’ll give you this if you give me that.' "
A combination of industry interests and state agencies have a lot of say on the bill drafting process, making requests to add language before the bill rolls off the printer.
"There’s so much pressure coming from the industry to cut costs and increase profits and that sort of thing that a lot of times the public’s interest isn’t at the top," Wilcox said. "It is not the first priority.”
Robaina's 2008 bill (HB 995) became the vehicle for an 87-page comprehensive condominium association omnibus promoted by the House Safety and Security Council that included dozens of changes to the state's condominium law.
One of the more significant changes was the removal of maintenance oversight by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. That recommendation came from Michael Cochran, then director of what was then called the Division of Florida Land Sales, Condominium Law and Mobile Homes, Robaina said.
"The division director had a lot of influence with the Legislature then," Robaina said.
Now an attorney in private practice, Cochran did not return a call and email seeking comment.
The 2008 bill also added language that says once a condominium is turned over from the developer to the association, "the division shall only have jurisdiction to investigate complaints related to financial issues, elections, and unit owner access to association records...."
The bill also includes opt-out language allowing a majority of the unit members present at a meeting to vote to delay the inspection, which was supposed to help the person preparing financial reports for the reserve study.
A balloon sculpture adorns the Surfside Wall of Hope and Memorial as workers search the site of the collapsed Champlain Towers South building in Surfside, Fla. July 11, 2021.
The bill added language that the study should provide information to determine if the reserves are "being funded at a level sufficient to prevent the need for a special assessment and, if not, the amount of assessments necessary to bring the reserves up to the level necessary to avoid a special assessment."
But the statute also provides an opt-out for the boards to delay the reserve study for a year. The clause, what Glazer calls a "kick-the-can" option for the condo boards, has been on the books for as long as he can remember.
The problem, Glazer said, is that fully funding a reserve to cover expensive maintenance and structural problems could double the monthly association fee. And nobody wants to raise fees on themselves and their neighbors.
"The Legislature gave them just enough rope to hang themselves," Glazer said.
A reversal of repeal
The repeal of the five-year inspection clause was the result of a lot of pushback from condominium associations and their lawyers, said Travis Moore, a lobbyist for the Community Associations Institute.
"It would have cost associations a lot of money," Moore said.
And those costs would have been passed onto the unit owners, many of whom are on fixed incomes.
Moore said he didn't know Rep. Gary Aubuchon, a Cape Coral developer and Realtor who sponsored the massive building safety bill that contained the repeal language. But when he asked around, he was told the bill was improving the building code, which made the five-year inspection mandate duplicative.
As of Friday, Aubuchon had not responded to requests for comment.
Nobody at DBPR was voicing opposition, Moore said, and his institute remained neutral: "We never pushed, supported or opposed it."
That was the last he heard about the inspection mandate until three weeks ago, after the June 24 collapse of the 12-story, 36-unit Champlain Tower South in Surfside.
One of the issues now being raised is that there is no state requirement to reinspect a condominium building once it's occupied. Miami-Dade and Broward are the only counties that require inspections, and that's only once a building hits 40 years of age.
"I think all of that will get looked at," Moore said. "If the state doesn't do something I think you are going to see a lot more local governments do something similar to Miami-Dade and Broward."
'Potential serious lapses in the law'
The tragedy in Surfside has led to a call from all sides to examine the state's condominium law.
"We are examining condominium laws and other laws applying to the governance of condominium associations to see if there are suggestions for changes to minimize or prevent the kind of tragedy that occurred at Champlain Tower South," said Bill Sklar, who is heading up a newly appointed condo law task force of the Florida Bar.
The task force will make recommendations to the governor and legislature in the next three months, Sklar said, to coincide with legislative pre-session hearings that begin in September.
The Surfside disaster "pointed out potential serious lapses in the law," Sklar said.
The Champlain Tower South collapse is the first of its kind in Florida. According to Sklar, it is the third worst building collapse in the United States, after the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, both of which were terrorist attacks.
These are huge, statewide questions that come with a sense of urgency, he said, noting a recent Wall Street Journal report noted there are 918,000 condominium units across Florida that are more than 30 years old — with 2 million people living in them.
One thing that jumps out is the lack of a statewide uniform standard for inspecting condominiums, he said. "There is no baseline requirement, no uniform criteria for inspections, no units of time," Sklar said.
There is no standard for when inspections should start, how frequently they should be conducted, who should do them, what qualifications inspectors should have or the scope of the inspections themselves, he said.
"Nobody is suggesting we write new laws just to write new laws," Sklar said.
But the task force will examine the 157-page state condominium law to see "what defects and what lapses need to be filled to prevent this tragedy from occurring again," Sklar said.