The lethal collapse of the Miami mansion sheds light on Florida’s condominium policy

The line of condominiums and hotels along Collins Avenue that offers residents a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean is now shrouded in a haunting pile of rubble.

Fifteen days later Champlain Towers South, a 12-story building with 136 units, crashed in the Miami suburb of Surfside, officials in South Florida this week called in search of survivors.

Emergency crews have shifted their focus to recovering the bodies of the victims of the crash, which, as of Friday evening, had killed at least 79 people with another 61 “potentially unacceptable.”

The search for the cause of the collapse has also begun, although investigators say it is too early to know how long it will take – much less what the final answer will be.

However, what is clear is that Champlain Towers South needed to repair millions of dollars as part of a 40-year “recertification,” a process set in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to ensure the buildings remain safe from decades of sun, sea and salt abuse in Florida.

The organization of these repairs falls to the council of the condominium association, a legal entity formed by voluntary owners elected by other residents, which maintains the structure and common areas of a building consisting of individually owned apartments.

Repairs have been delayed due to cost disputes. This had jumped from $ 9m to $ 15m before the council voted in April to fund it via a “special assessment”, a fee charged for a specific project and a dreaded prospect for many condo owners who have to stump up their share.

There are parallels to the paralyzing bills that some apartment owners were forced to pay while the owners upgraded the coating on their buildings in response to the deadly Grenfell fire in London four years ago.

A woman adds flowers to a memorial with photos of some of those lost south of the Champlain Towers © Giorgia Viera / AFP via Getty Images

Less than a third of condo associations in the United States have enough funds saved for big-ticket repairs such as structural work or roof replacement, and experts say delays and disagreements are common not only in Florida but in the United States.

“Every condominium is like a small micro-society,” said Carolina Sznajderman Sheir, an Eisinger Law partner who specializes in condominium law.

Sheir said that while the 40-year recertification might seem like a “very factual” process, it often results in struggles between residents. “That’s why it’s difficult: we’re talking about monumental projects, we’re talking about millions of dollars in restaurants.”

“Councils that impose assessments are not popular advice,” he added. “People don’t want to pay huge valuations… And politics is politics, whether it’s national or on a small table.”

Annotated photograph explaining the collapse of The Champlain Towers in Miami

Marta Reeves knows all too well how the process can fall into acrimony. His family lived for more than three decades at the Brickell Imperial, a 161-unit building located about 12 miles southwest of Champlain Towers South. Built in 1983 along Biscayne Bay, its distinctive “red wall” can be seen in the opening credits of the 1980s television show “Miami Vice”.

The situation at Imperial underscores how debates over how to pay for repairs can lead to hostility: homeowners with varying incomes and different philosophies about how much maintenance is needed snipe from each other, sometimes via Facebook or email.

Reeves won a seat on the Imperial Council in 2010, and was part of a coordinated list of elected officials in March 2018. The five new council members spent a special $ 1m assessment to repair the roof, the tower of cooling and elevators because The building lacked enough reserves to pay for the work.

The council later decided to replace the 944 windows along the famous red wall; a report by an engineer more than a decade ago said they were coming to the end of their useful lives. The building’s 40-year certification, due in 2023, calls for a waterproof “envelope,” while new building codes specify that glass should be able to withstand the impact of hurricanes hitting the coast. of Florida.

So the council passed a $ 9 million valuation, which would have cost homeowners between $ 45,000 and $ 62,000 per unit. Despite securing funding to help homeowners bear the costs, Reeves and his four-member board members lost their bid for re-election in February 2020.

The current and old panels of the imperial condominium do not agree on the maintenance of the 944 windows along its “red wall”, which can be seen in the opening credits of the 1980 television show ‘Miami Vice © Claire Bushey

“It’s not a popular job when, after years of not fixing things on time, the piper has to come,” Reeves said. “That’s what made us vote out.”

Reeves watched with frustration as the new board tried to tackle the repairs with what it perceived as less acute organizational than before. “I’m not saying they don’t fix it,” he said. “They put Band-AIDS on us.”

Rissig Licha, a member of the current Imperial Council, rejected such suggestions. In an email statement, he said the council has “made respect for the 40-year recertification its first goal since taking office.”

The council also said it had “actively communicated” with the owners during the process and had sought out “the best structural and construction experts and specialists at considerable cost”.

Florida has 1.5m condominiums, more than any other state. State law requires associations to have a schedule to pay for major repairs, but there is a gap: homeowners can vote to waive payment in a reserve fund. Only six states need condos to maintain “adequate” reserves without giving owners the option to waive the requirement.

Sheir, the attorney, noted that many of Florida’s condominium owners are retired and are therefore less concerned about the long-term maintenance of their property. They prefer to keep the association’s monthly fees as low as possible, he added.

“People don’t want to pay higher valuations,” he said. “They’d rather have money in their pockets than in someone else’s.”

Failure to keep money aside for capital improvements is a problem in the United States, but it is particularly acute in Florida, where the climate demands a tougher toll on buildings. Builders use cement because the weight of the material protects them from hurricanes, but over time ultraviolet rays and salty air end up corroding the material, according to Sinisa Kolar, vice president of engineering and architecture consultant Falcon Group.

The rest of the condominium was demolished on July 4 © Giorgio Viera / AFP via Getty Images

Some local policymakers have suggested that Florida should cut the recertification process from 40 years to 20 years, which Kolar said of “making everyone aware of the work they absolutely need.”

But Robert Nordlund, chief executive of the Reserve Association, is skeptical about whether the legislation could force condominium owners to budget for future repairs.

What could make more of a difference, he said, is whether insurers and mortgage lenders have considered the state of a condominium association’s finances when setting premiums or taking out a loan. Lenders generally only require that the condominium association’s reserve fund be 10% financed before they are willing to give a loan to a buyer.

“The risk factors are there, and they’re so obvious,” he said. “I don’t know why they are missing these clues… I wonder if this is the moment they will start learning and refining their underwriting standards.”

The Surfside disaster took residents in Imperial, as well as in condominiums in Miami.

Emergency support columns were placed in the building’s parking lot garage last week, but Licha said structural engineers hired by the condominium association “have not identified any repairs or conditions that are not known. not orderly and consistent with buildings located in the same way as the same age group ”. Reeves agrees with the current court that the apartment block is structurally sound.

However, at least one resident appeared shocked this week. He stopped his car in the garage to tell Reeves that he had written to the board to express his concerns. He told them to continue writing: tragedies sometimes bring changes.

“It’s a very high cost,” he replied.

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