The Legislature is moving condo safety in the right direction | Editorial
Inspections and required reserve funds would be meaningful responses to the deadly Surfside tragedy

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times

By Editorial Board

Published February 23, 2022


Florida lawmakers are moving quickly to prevent another deadly condo collapse. Legislation in the House and Senate would subject older condominium buildings in Florida to regular inspection, with the House measure going further to help ensure that structural problems are actually addressed. These are essential starting points in improving safety for millions of residents.

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. The House and Senate legislation would toughen that requirement and apply it statewide.

The Senate led the way by championing SB 1702, which would establish a mandatory structural inspection program for multifamily residential buildings that are greater than three stories tall and larger than 3,500 square feet. Inspections would be required once a building reaches 30 years old, and every 10 years thereafter. Buildings within 3 miles of the coastline would require an inspection after 20 years, and every seven years thereafter. That shorter timetable is meant to accommodate the corrosive effect of sea water, a practical concern given the large numbers of condos built along the coast.

A bill advancing through the House, PCB PPE 22-03, includes similar provisions. While it provides a more relaxed schedule for inspecting coastal condos (after 25 years, and every 10 years thereafter), the bill includes several key protections. Condo associations would be required to conduct studies of their reserves every decade to ensure they have the resources to finance needed structural improvements. Most important, they would be barred from waiving a requirement that money be put into reserves for structural improvements and other key repairs, such as to plumbing, electrical and fireproofing systems.

These inspections are key to maintaining the properties and to giving condo associations the time they need to plan and save for major renovations. Both bills also require that these records be shared among owners, potential buyers and government agencies, creating a tool for better informing residents and holding condos and regulators accountable. While both bills leave it to local government to assess any penalties for noncompliance, the House bill authorizes the state to enforce the requirements for reserve studies and some inspections.

This legislation is improving as it advances, and the bipartisan support speaks to the broad impact that stronger protections would have for millions of Floridians. 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. Nearly 142,000 condominium units in the state are 20 to 30 years old, reflecting how many are in the pipeline for age-related repairs.

The House bill does a better job of making these inspections meaningful, by reducing the ability of condo associations to put off needed repairs. It also does a better job of balancing the competing economic interests. Condo owners cannot in many cases be expected to shoulder huge assessments overnight. But deferring maintenance indefinitely, beyond endangering safety, could seriously undermine Florida’s condo market, a rich source of property tax revenue. Florida has turned a blind eye to this risk too long.

Lawmakers still need to address a major missing piece — provisions to help condo associations finance these costly repairs. Experts estimate that thousands of condo associations are in a bind, cash-strapped and fobbing off major renovations to the next group of owners. These associations need new avenues to credit. And buyers need a more realistic picture of what owning a piece of paradise in Florida really costs. But the Legislature is responding commendably to Surfside with at least a strategy for preventing another tragedy.