Florida lawmakers wasted a golden opportunity during the recent legislative session to respond to last year’s deadly condominium collapse in Surfside. And the impacts are already being felt, as insurers unwilling to write policies on aging condominiums continue to leave the market. This upheaval is bad news for condo owners and taxpayers alike, and lawmakers should move quickly to restore confidence in these buildings and this industry.
A federally appointed team of engineering experts is investigating what caused the 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, north of Miami Beach, 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. Only two Florida counties — Miami-Dade and Broward — require that condos be inspected and recertified as safe after a building turns 40. That requirement needs to be toughened and applied statewide.
Legislation that initially sailed through the House and Senate during the recent legislative session would have helped. HB 7069 required a mandatory inspection for multifamily residential buildings three stories or higher once they reached 30 years old (or within 25 years if within three miles of the coast) and re-inspections every 10 years thereafter. The move would have given condo owners a fuller picture of their building’s structural integrity, while helping condo associations better plan for costly, long-term maintenance. But a late-session amendment by the Senate removed the requirements for condominiums to hold money in reserve for repairs, a change the House sponsor declared unacceptable, killing the legislation in March.
Legislative leaders bungled what should have been a bipartisan priority. Even a compromise that phased-in more money for repairs would have been a reasonable place to start. 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. Another 142,000 units in the state are 20 to 30 years old. Residents need to know what physical shape these buildings are in, and the costs required to maintain them. That’s doubly obvious as rising seas and other climate-related impacts threaten this Florida way of life.
The Legislature’s failure to act on condo safety is increasingly hurting the market. As the Miami Herald reports, insurance companies are on the retreat, fearing the unknown of potential losses, leaving condo associations to deal with carriers in the lesser-regulated surplus market. The uncertainty has translated to massive price hikes and carve-outs for policyholders. As the Herald reports, associations are having a hard time getting their pre-Surfside policies renewed, forced instead to consider less protective plans that cost twice as much, or higher. Many of those lucky enough to renew are facing premium increases of 30% to 50%. Carriers are picking and choosing which buildings to insure. With prices rising and competition shrinking, owners face higher costs while an unsettled market faces greater uncertainty.
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The driving force for these changes is to protect more lives. But condominiums also serve as vacation and second homes, and protecting the value of these properties, which litter the Florida coast, is critical to the tax base of the state. Lawmakers will gather for a special session in May to confront a separate problem with homeowners’ insurance. While that agenda looks too narrowly focused to include condominium reforms, lawmakers need to fashion a post-Surfside package soon. This crisis has too many ramifications to leave it to insurers and lenders alone to resolve. Turning a blind eye to condo safety got us here, and it’s not a winning strategy to continue.
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 Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.