After Surfside building collapse, a needed focus on condo safety | Editorial
A starting point as Florida lawmakers prepare for session
People look at the rubble at Champlain Towers South Condo, part of which collapsed in the early morning in Surfside, Florida on June 24.
People look at the rubble at Champlain Towers South Condo, part of which collapsed in the early morning in Surfside, Florida on June 24. [ DAVID SANTIAGO | Miami Herald ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 21
Updated Oct. 21

A federally appointed team of engineering experts is investigating what caused the 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside to collapse in June, killing 98 people. While understanding the science behind the tragedy is critical, the collapse also exposed dangerous gaps in how condominiums in Florida are managed and maintained. That’s why a new report from a task force from a section of the Florida Bar is such a solid starting point as the Legislature looks to prevent another catastrophe.

The section commissioned the task force in the wake of the collapse to examine whether Florida should change any laws or regulations to keep a similar tragedy from happening in the future. The recommendations, released last week, include sensible changes, from requiring regular building inspections to holding condo associations more accountable for making needed repairs. Among the reforms proposed:

Regular inspections. Only two Florida counties — Miami-Dade and Broward — require local officials to recertify that a building is safe, and that provision applies only after a building reaches 40 years old. But Florida has more than 1.5 million residential condos, and of those, nearly 600,000 are at least 40 years old , with an estimated 2 million people living in condos 30 years or older. In other words, a big universe of Floridians live in these aging buildings. The Bar task force recommends structural inspections every five years. That should provide timely notice of any significant deterioration and give condo associations time to budget for repairs.

Strengthening reserves. Condos typically fund major repair projects by using reserves or levying a special assessment on property owners. But existing loopholes allow condo associations to waive or reduce their reserves, which may be more financially palatable to residents but which can defer much-needed repairs. The task force recommends tightening the law to provide more money for long-term maintenance. And it would make it easier for condo associations to adopt assessments or to borrow money for major repairs, which could fund essential rehab projects and prolong the life of a building.

Increase transparency. The Bar task force would also increase transparency so that condo boards, residents and government building officials would all be more informed about the structural integrity of a building and the plan for keeping it safe. Florida law currently has no requirement for reporting and tracking a condo’s maintenance records. The task force recommends a standard template for inspection records and more document-sharing between local governments, condo associations and property owners and buyers. Having more eyes on the state of these buildings, and in real time, could keep more needed repairs from falling through the cracks.

It’s always tempting to respond to tragedy by swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction — by adopting far-reaching reforms that are both well-intentioned and overkill. In this case, the Bar task force has offered a thoughtful, measured blueprint for debate. Its report acknowledges that building safety and the condo market are intertwined, and the inherent conflict that elected condo boards face in imposing assessments. It carefully noted the task force was “not suggesting that any significant percentage” of the 912,000 condo units 30 years or older was not well maintained or managed. And it proposed these recommendations in time for lawmakers and the public to consider in advance of the legislative session’s start in January.

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The Bar task force has contributed to a fuller, responsible response to the disaster, and laid out some practical reforms that should improve condo living and management alike. They deserve the same due consideration by the Legislature.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.