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Calls for Condo Law Reform Mount After Florida Tower Collapse

Building regulations in the Sunshine State are being eyed for an overhaul after the 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside suddenly crumbled to the ground.

(CN) — Florida condominium regulations are under scrutiny in the wake of the Champlain Towers South building collapse, as the tragedy has shaken confidence in high-rise safety across the state and prompted calls for reform in the upcoming legislative session.

As of Friday afternoon, 78 victims of the collapse have been confirmed dead, while more than 60 people remain unaccounted for. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava this week acknowledged that first responders had transitioned from a search for potential survivors to a recovery effort focused on retrieving victims' remains.

Though the investigation into the cause of collapse is in the early stage, it's evident that Champlain Towers South had significant structural defects that were decades in the making. In advance of the building's 40-year recertification, a 2018 engineering report noted extensive deterioration of a concrete structural slab near the pool deck and warned that the damage would expand exponentially if not repaired.

The report traced the damage back to a "major error" in the construction of the building, namely a lack of sloping for water to drain. 

Advocates for Florida condo law reform argue that the collapse exposed how structural defects in condominiums can be neglected for years under the current regulatory framework, necessitating huge repair projects that some unit owners would rather put off than pay for.  The long delay in diagnosing the extent of concrete deterioration at Champlain Towers South was symptomatic of shortcomings in Florida condo regulation, they say. 

In an interview, longtime construction-defect litigator Joel Kenwood said that many condo associations will not take on the cost of a full-fledged structural inspection unless it is required by law. Because building deficiencies can remain hidden or appear as cosmetic damage to the untrained eye, condo boards commonly go years on end without realizing the need for a structural evaluation. 

According to Kenwood, comprehensive condo inspections should be required on a periodic basis statewide – and time limits on developer liability should be extended so that when a major deficiency in the initial design or construction of a condo is discovered, the financial burden does not fall on unit owners.  

"It's sort of a double-edged sword. You have [statutes] that limit the amount of years you have to sue a developer for structural and design defects. And then you have the problem with the maintenance not being done in terms of having a structural engineer check out the building," Kenwood said.

Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Florida's two most populous, mandate recertification of buildings once they turn 40 years old. Countless other communities across the state, including the neighboring county of Palm Beach, lack that review process, however.

"The alternative is to require mandatory structural checks every 10 or 20 years. Forty years is a long time, especially if a building's on the beach, where you have the corrosion from the saltwater and salty air," Kenwood said.

Still, a mandatory 10-year inspection period – one of the more proactive regulatory measures proposed in the wake of the collapse – would not necessarily protect Florida condo owners from massive repair bills if an inspection turns up a long-hidden deficiency. 

That's because the deadline to sue a developer for a latent defect was reduced from 15 years to 10 years after construction, thanks to a shift Florida law dating back to 2006. Under state law, developers' liability moreover ends four years after a latent defect is discovered or "should have been discovered."

Kenwood said the time limits on liability create an environment where developers and contractors operate without fear of future accountability for shoddy construction. But the chances of getting the Florida Senate or House of Representatives to push back the statute of limitations are slim, he said.


"The problem you have is that the legislature is supported and funded by developers," he said. "The legislature has made it more and more difficult to sue developers over the years."

People mourn at the memorial wall for the victims of the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside, Fla., on Thursday, July 8, 2021. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP)

Jason Bruce, a construction defect attorney from Winter Park, said the tragedy in Surfside stands to change the way condo associations confront major repair projects, regardless of whether the legislature reforms state law.

"No law is going to be perfect. It just can't govern every conceivable situation. If anything good is gonna come out of this, it's that when people have a structural engineer tell them that they have big problems, they will all agree to act as a community and resolve the issue before it's too late," Bruce, a partner at Pursiano Barry, said in an interview. "People need to act swiftly and responsibly when they recognize a problem."

Bruce suggested that reluctance on the part of condo associations and unit owners to quickly tackle repair projects has been a systemic issue in Florida. Putting off a project can contribute to the deterioration of a building structure and precipitate a steep increase in the price of repairs, as was seen at Champlain Towers South.

Between the time Champlain Towers South was inspected in 2018 and the time its condo board approved a $15 million special assessment to fund wide-ranging repairs, the estimated project cost increased by more than $5 million dollars. An April 2021 letter sent by the board to residents explained that the concrete deterioration had worsened since the 2018 inspection, and that the scope of the project had expanded significantly.  

The 2018 engineering report had noted that large sections of concrete would need to be removed to access the deteriorated structural elements. It was a massive undertaking that would be a long-term disturbance to residents, the report stated. 

At the time of the collapse, roofing work was underway, but repairs to the structural elements had not yet begun.

According to Bruce, "it all comes down to money." Repairs of that magnitude require special assessments so costly that financially strapped residents resort to selling their property, or abandoning it if they're upside down on their mortgage.

"For some condominium buildings, people cross their fingers and stare at the ceiling at night hoping that a bank is going to approve their mortgage, and that they'll be able to buy a unit. Then when they move in and the board says, 'Guess what, we had an expert consultant come in here, and we need to specially assess everybody $15,000 per unit,' it may just be overwhelming," Bruce said.

The special assessment at Champlain Towers South would have cost the owner of each unit at least $80,000. The New York Times reported that the assessment was a financial hardship for residents and was met with opposition by some in the building.

Bruce has seen situations where much smaller special assessments, a few thousand dollars, created resident infighting in condo buildings, even at properties occupied primarily by wealthy residents.

Excavators dig through the rubble of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., on Thursday, July 8, 2021. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald via AP)

The Florida Bar this week announced that it is convening a task force to evaluate potential reforms in Sunshine State condo law, with an eye towards preventing another tragedy like the Champlain Towers South collapse.

The task force plans to make recommendations to the Florida Legislature within three months. The team for now consists of six lawyers with varying backgrounds in condominium and construction law.

William Sklar, chair of the task force, said in an interview that he wants to have the recommendations ready before Florida legislative committees convene in the fall. He said he's hoping for a "collaborative effort with the legislature, the governor's office" and the state condominium division.


"There are hundreds if not thousands of condominium buildings across the state where there is no recertification requirement. We're going to examine whether there should be a statewide standard," said Sklar, who chaired the Florida Bar's Condominium and Planned Development Committee for seven years.

"The fact that people go to bed at night wondering whether they're going to wake up and their building may be unsafe is unacceptable to all of us. There must be measures to assure that condominium buildings, especially aging ones, are properly maintained," he said.

In addition to proposals concerning mandatory inspections and building recertification, the task force will be considering whether condo associations should be required to do periodic studies of their financial reserves.

According to an NBC report, Champlain Towers South's available reserves in the time leading up to the collapse covered only a small fraction of the planned $16 million restoration project.

As it stands, unit owners in Florida condo buildings have the ability to vote on waiving reserves to keep yearly maintenance fees down.

Sklar said a contingency plan needs to be considered, where, if unit owners are unable to afford their share of the cost of essential repairs to a building, long-term government loans would be made available.

"What if unit owners can't afford the repairs or reserves? Who will pay for life safety? One thing we may suggest is that for people who can't afford it in certain age buildings – and based upon someone's income or means – there should be low or no cost government-backed or subsidized financing," Sklar said.

"I think personally that should be readily available to allow all residential condominium buildings to be maintained safely," he said. "It's a big ask."

Sklar noted that the Champlain Towers South collapse has raised questions about whether condominium association boards, typically staffed by volunteer residents, should have discretion over critical safety decisions like when to complete a structural inspection.

"[Board members] are people who for the most part care about their communities, care about each other, feel that they can contribute something, do it for no compensation and have good intent. But many of them are not trained to manage a large structure," Sklar said.  

On a local level, Mayor Levine Cava said Wednesday that she supports reforms in the building inspection process in her county. Almost immediately after the tragedy, the mayor ordered an audit of older buildings under county jurisdiction and urged local cities to do a similar review. In turn, North Miami Beach completed its own audit, which culminated in the evacuation of the 156-unit Crestview Towers condominium over electrical and structural safety concerns.

Meanwhile, Champlain Towers North -- a sister condo that was built around the same time as Champlain Towers South and sits a block away from the rubble -- is undergoing a top-to-bottom inspection for structural integrity.

Governor Ron DeSantis said at a July 7 press conference that he believes Champlain Towers South "had problems from the start."

"We obviously want to be able to identify why did this happen. Is this something that was unique to this building? Is it something that was unique to the person that maybe developed it? Because obviously there are sister properties," DeSantis said.

"If there is something identified that would have implications broader than Champlain Towers, then obviously we are gonna take that and act as appropriate," he added.

Florida briefly had a law in place beginning in 2008 that called for inspections of condominiums higher than three stories by an architect or engineer every five years. Under the law, the inspection reports would outline the maintenance needed and the costs of suggested repairs. The law also established standards for informing unit owners about their risk of being hit with special assessments.  

Those regulations allowed the five-year inspection process to be waived by a vote of owners, so it's unclear whether the law would have resulted in Champlain Towers South's construction defects being addressed sooner. The regulations were repealed in 2010 after the subprime mortgage crisis decimated the housing market.  

Under Miami-Dade and Broward Counties' current law, buildings undergo a recertification process upon turning 40 years old and then are subject to further recertification inspections at 10-year intervals. 

Categories: Business Government Law

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