Surfside collapse 1 year later: New Florida regulations make condos safer, but at what cost?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In the early morning hours of June 24, 2021, a 12-story condo building in Surfside, Florida, suddenly began collapsing and, within minutes, turned into a pile of mostly concrete rubble. It was one of the worst building collapses of its kind in U.S. history, and left behind a staggering death toll of 98 people.

Florida lawmakers responded to the public’s demand to avert a future tragedy by passing new statewide regulations, which take effect July 1. They are intended to ensure that the more than 1.5 million condominiums in Florida are structurally sound and properly maintained.

But the new requirements also could make condo living too expensive for thousands of people, particularly retirees living on fixed incomes.

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“It needed to be done, no question about it, however, as a result you’re going to have people kicked out of their homes,” said Eric Glazer, a condo law attorney with Glazer & Sachs in Fort Lauderdale.

That’s exactly what worries Florida condo resident Doug Smith.

“I know they (the Legislature) want to make sure everybody’s safe, but you’ve got to be able to find a way to do it and not wipe people out financially,” said Smith, who serves on the condo board for the oceanfront 29-story Peck Plaza in Daytona Beach Shores in Volusia County.

Tragedy raised red flags regarding state regulations

A Miami-Dade County grand jury found that delays by the Champlain Towers South condo board in making timely repairs likely contributed to the deadly collapse of the 40-year-old oceanfront building.

The Surfside collapse was one of the deadliest structural engineering failures in U.S. history and the worst involving a condo tower.

Major structural issues were identified in a 2018 inspection, but the condo board for Champlain Towers South put off making the repairs because of the projected high cost.

The grand jury’s report sharply criticized the Florida Condominium Act for allowing condo boards throughout the state to waive their obligation to fund reserves for maintenance and repairs.

The Surfside condo collapse also raised red flags about the lack of a statewide requirement for condo buildings to undergo periodic structural inspections.

Only two of Florida’s 67 counties required periodic structural inspections, and only when a building reached 40 years of age: Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Surfside is in Miami-Dade County.

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The new statewide regulations will require all condo buildings three stories or taller and larger than 3,500 square feet to undergo structural inspections when they reach 25 years of age if they are within three miles of the coast. For inland condos, the initial inspections will be required upon turning 30 years old, and then every decade thereafter.

Beginning Dec. 31, 2024, the deadline for the first round of those structural inspections to be completed, condo boards in Florida must show their financial reserves are fully funded for maintenance, inspections and potential future repairs.

Bill Sklar, the condo law attorney with Carlton Fields, chaired the Florida Bar task force that came up with recommendations for changes to the Florida Condominium Act that ultimately resulted in the new state regulations.

“Overall, I think the Legislature did a good job, but there is an affordability issue,” said Sklar. “I would have preferred a ramped-up period.”

Nearly a million condos in Florida are 30+ years old

According to state data, Florida has more than 900,000 condos that are at least 30 years old. Some were built as far back as the 1960s and ’70s. Those aging condos are home to more than 2 million people.

When thousands of buildings and structures failed that should have made it through Hurricane Andrew, the state Legislature in 1998 adopted some of the nation’s strictest building codes, which required condo buildings to be inspected before the developer could sell them to residents. But prior to the new regulations that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in late May, the Florida Condominium Act did not require condo boards to conduct subsequent structural inspections. It also left when and how much to pay for maintenance and repairs to the condo boards’ discretion.

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The Florida Bar task force report issued Oct. 12, 2021, wrote it found no data to suggest “any significant percentage” of the state’s condos are not well maintained. However, the task force also found concerning a lack of uniform maintenance standards.

In the case of the ill-fated Champlain Towers South, a letter written by the building’s condo association president just two months before the collapse urged approval of a $15 million special assessment because of the “accelerating deterioration of the concrete.” 

If the new state regulations had been in place in 2018 when the engineering inspection found structural defects, the condo board would have been required to immediately make the needed repairs.

Ormond Beach architect Ben Butera said it is not uncommon for condo associations to not only defer repairs, but also proper maintenance because of the high costs.

“A simple thing like repainting a building can be sloughed off,” he told USA TODAY Network – Florida in an interview last year.

Butera said it is not difficult to spot older condo buildings where maintenance and repairs may very well have been put off.

“If you go into a parking garage under an oceanfront condo high-rise, you’ll typically see rust stains or collection of water,” he said. “Those are telltale signs.” 

Architect: new regulations don’t go far enough

Butera said he believes the state’s new regulations may not be enough.

“I feel waiting for 25 years to inspect a structure is too long a period. Structural failure will likely occur much sooner,” he said. “Having these associations directly responsible for the enormous cost of something like a structural failure is an industry-killing pursuit.” 

Dreux Isaac runs a consulting firm in Orlando that specializes in performing reserve studies and insurance appraisals for condo boards and other community associations. He was one of the experts interviewed by the Florida Bar task force.

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“It’s my experience that most condo associations are significantly underfunded,” he said. “We recommended a five-year ramp-up (to fully fund reserves). I can’t imagine how some associations are going to do it. Their dues will likely double, triple or even quadruple, based on what I’ve seen.” 

Isaac said the higher condo fees will not likely be a problem for those living in newer luxury condos because they are more likely to be affluent.

“It’s these older buildings that are more likely to be populated by people on fixed incomes,” he said. 

Rules could be subject to more revisions

State Sen. Tom Wright, R-New Smyrna Beach, said he expects the new state condo regulations will be revised in next year’s legislative session.

“There may be some things we didn’t think of between now and the end of 2024,” he said.

The new condo regulations require that “milestone inspections” be performed by either a licensed architect or structural engineer. The first phase can be done visually to determine whether there are signs of structural deterioration. If the inspector determines that there is sufficient reason to believe further testing be done, the second and final phase could include destructive testing, which would require tearing out the drywall and/or drilling into the concrete to see whether the steel rebar has been damaged.

The inspectors would be required to sign their names to the inspection reports with copies sent to both the state as well as to the condo boards to share with residents. Those reports also would be required to be shared with future buyers.

The new state regulations could end up attracting more licensed architects and structural engineers to Florida, said Wright. “I think this is going to create a new cottage industry for condo inspectors.” 

Beth Pannell, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Division of Condominiums, Timeshares and Mobile Homes, wrote in an email that the division “is reviewing the adopted legislation and preparing for implementation of the matters that are within the division’s jurisdiction” and noted condo associations must have fully funded reserves by Dec. 31, 2024. 

Sklar said he believes the end of 2024 is “when associations need to start funding their reserves. They won’t be expected to be fully funded (by that deadline).” 

As far as how much money the reserves need to have, that will vary depending on the building, both in terms of its size, age and location, said Sklar. “Certainly it could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions of dollars,” he said.

Condo resident: new regulations seem ‘a little extreme’

Doug Smith’s wife, Deb, works as a Realtor in the Daytona Beach area. She views the new state condo regulations as an overreach by the Legislature.

“One collapse and everybody’s being punished for it,” she said. “Seems a little extreme to me. It’s not like we’re having buildings collapse left and right.” 

To date, Florida has only had two condo building collapses. In addition to last year’s Champlain Towers South catastrophe, a five-story building in Cocoa Beach toppled while it was still under construction in 1981, killing 11 workers.

That’s missing the point, said Sklar of the rarity of structural failures involving condos in Florida.

“You don’t wait for another collapse and more people to die,” he said. “Had the new regulations not been implemented, was there a risk of more collapses? Absolutely yes. It was not a question of if, but when.”

“Imagine if you didn’t maintain your single-family house for 30, 40 or 50 years. Eventually, you’d have a roof collapse or a structural failure,” Sklar said. “It’s no different for a box in the air called a condominium.” 

“Many of these buildings have reached or exceeded their natural lifespans, but they can be extended if they do the concrete work,” he said of the state’s nearly 1 million aging condos 30 years or older.

What about condos that already had inspections?

One concern the new state regulations don’t address is whether condo buildings that made structural repairs and had inspections done in recent years prior to the bill’s passage would be required to pay for a new round of inspections.

Peck Plaza in Daytona Beach Shores is a 1970s-built building that was extensively damaged by Hurricanes Matthew and Irma in 2016 and 2017. The building underwent a several-million-dollar restoration that took several years and included extensive structural repairs. Doug Smith said he and his wife finally were able to move into their 21st-floor condo unit in August 2020, after paying more than $40,000 in special assessments to cover their share of the repair costs.

A couple months after the Surfside collapse, Smith said Peck Plaza’s condo board decided to pay for a follow-up structural inspection “to make sure we didn’t miss anything.” 

Smith said he is concerned that the new state regulations could potentially require Peck Plaza residents to “double spend” by paying for yet another round of structural inspections. “We’re just now building our reserves back up,” he said.

If a condo board has paid to have a structural inspection done in the past 10 years, that should count as meeting the state’s new Dec. 31, 2024, deadline for milestone inspections, said Wright. “That may be something I can sponsor,” the state lawmaker said.

Still searching for answers in Surfside

Where the Champlain Towers South condos stood a year ago, there is now a hole in the quiet town of Surfside and the heart of its community.  

Only the bottoms of the columns that once supported the building can now be seen, with corroded construction rods coming out of them. The space is still covered with rubble and water that is suctioned out every morning.  

The site is sealed off with plastic barricades and covered by a navy-blue net with the names of the 98 victims of the collapse. A year later, fake flowers are pinned to the net next to the names of the victims.

A Dubai-based developer recently purchased the land with plans for an “an ultra-luxurious” condo project. 

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the main federal agency conducting the probe, said it expects the investigation to take years to determine the exact cause of the collapse.

Allyn Kilsheimer is an expert forensic engineer hired by the City of Surfside to determine the exact causes of the condo collapse. That answer, he said, is crucial to preventing similar tragedies in the future.  

One year later, he is still trying to piece together the full story. “I don’t have enough facts,” he said.

Kilsheimer continues to receive phone calls from developers, condo managers and tenants around the country.

“People are worried about whether or not they have whatever made this happen happening in their building,” he said. 

Contributing: Valentina Palm, Palm Beach (Fla.) Post. Follow Clayton Park on Twitter: @ClaytonPark3