Fifteen days after the collapse of Champlain Towers South, a 12-story apartment building with 136 units, in the Miami suburb of Surfside, authorities in South Florida this week called off the search for survivors.
Emergency teams focused on recovering the bodies of victims of the collapse, which by Friday evening left at least 79 dead and 61 others “potentially missing”.
The search for the cause of the collapse has also begun, although investigators say it’s too early to know how long it will take – let alone what the final answer will be.
Yet what is clear is that Champlain Towers South was to undergo millions of dollars in repairs as part of a 40-year “recertification,” a process established in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to ensure that buildings remain safe for decades. abuse of the sun, sea and Florida salt.
The organization of these repairs was the responsibility of the condominium board, a legal entity made up of volunteer owners elected by other residents, which maintains the structure and common areas of a building comprising of individual apartments.
Repairs were delayed due to cost disputes. It rose from $ 9 million to $ 15 million before the board voted in April to fund them through a “special assessment,” a charge levied for a specific project, and a dreaded prospect for many. condo owners who must accumulate their share.
There are parallels to the crippling bills some apartment owners are forced to pay as homeowners improve the cladding of their buildings in response to the deadly Grenfell fire in London four years ago.
Less than a third of condominium associations in the United States have enough funds saved for expensive repairs such as structural work or replacing a roof, and experts say delays and disagreements are not only common. in Florida but across the United States.
“Each condo is like a small micro-corporation,” said Carolina Sznajderman Sheir, partner at Eisinger Law, specializing in condominium law.
Sheir said that while the 40-year recertification may seem like a “very factual” process, it often leads to internal feuds among residents. “Here’s why it’s difficult: we’re talking about monumental projects, we’re talking about millions of dollars in restoration.”
“Councils that take dues are not popular councils,” she added. “People don’t want to pay huge dues. . . And politics is politics, whether national or on a tiny bit of advice.
Marta Reeves knows all too well how the process can escalate into acrimony. His family has lived for over three decades at the Imperial at Brickell, a 161-unit apartment building located approximately 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 TV show “Miami Vice”.
The situation at Imperial underscores just how hostile debates about how to pay for repairs can be: Homeowners with varying incomes and differing philosophies about how much maintenance is needed are sniping, sometimes on Facebook or by E-mail.
Reeves won a seat on the Imperial condo board of directors in 2010 and was part of a coordinated roster of officers elected in March 2018. The five new board members passed a special appraisal of $ 1 million for repairing the roof, cooling tower and elevators because the building lacked sufficient reserves to pay for the work.
The council subsequently decided to replace the 944 windows along the famous red wall; an engineering report dating back more than a decade had indicated that they were reaching the end of their useful life. The building’s 40-year certification, due in 2023, required a tight “envelope”, while new building codes specified that the glass should be able to withstand the impact of hurricanes hitting the Florida coastline.
The board therefore adopted a valuation of $ 9 million, which would have cost owners between $ 45,000 and $ 62,000 per unit. Despite securing funding to help homeowners bear the cost, Reeves and his four fellow board members subsequently lost their candidacy for re-election in February 2020.
“It’s not a popular job when, after years of not fixing things in a timely manner, the bagpiper is going to come,” Reeves said. “This is what made us vote. “
Reeves watched in frustration as the new board tried to tackle repairs with what she saw as less organizational sense than before. “I’m not saying they don’t fix it,” she said. “They put bandages on it. “
Rissig Licha, current Imperial Oil board member, rejected these suggestions. In an emailed statement, she said the board had “made meeting the 40-year recertification its primary focus since taking office.”
The board also said it had “actively communicated” with the owners during the process and sought “the best experts and specialists in structure and construction at considerable cost”.
Florida has 1.5m condos, more than any other state. State law requires associations to have a timeline for paying for major repairs, but there’s a loophole: Homeowners can vote to forgo paying into a reserve fund. Only six states require condos to maintain “adequate” reserves without giving owners the option of waiving this requirement.
Sheir, the lawyer, noted that many Florida condo owners are retirees and therefore less concerned with the long-term maintenance of their property. They would prefer to keep the association’s monthly dues as low as possible, she added.
“People just don’t want to pay higher dues,” she said. “They’d rather have the money in their pocket than someone else’s. “
Not putting money aside for capital improvements is a problem in the United States, but it is particularly acute in Florida, where the weather takes a heavy toll on buildings. Builders use concrete because the weight of the material protects against hurricanes, but over time, ultraviolet rays and salty air eventually corrode the material, according to Sinisa Kolar, vice president of the engineering consulting firm and in Falcon Group architecture.
Some local politicians have suggested Florida should cut the recertification process from 40 to 20 years, which Kolar said would “educate everyone about the work they absolutely need.”
But Robert Nordlund, managing director of Association Reserves, is skeptical about whether the legislation can force condo owners to budget for future repairs.
What could make more of a difference, he said, is if insurers and mortgage lenders take a condo’s association’s financial condition into account when setting premiums or making a loan. Lenders typically only require that a condominium association’s reserve fund be 10 percent funded before they are ready to issue a mortgage to a buyer.
“The risk factors are there, and they are so obvious,” he said. “I don’t know why they’re missing these clues. . . I wonder if this is the time when they will start to learn and refine their underwriting standards. ”
The Surfside disaster hit residents of Imperial, just as it hit Miami condominiums.
Emergency support columns were placed in the building’s parking lot last week, but Licha said structural engineers hired by the condominium association “have not identified any unusual repairs or conditions. and compatible with buildings located in the same way and of the same age group ”. Reeves agrees with the current advice that the building is structurally sound.
Still, at least one resident seemed pissed off this week. He stopped his car in the garage to tell Reeves that he had written to council to express his concerns. She told him to keep writing: sometimes tragedies bring about change.
“It’s a very high cost,” he replied.