Surfside collapse could’ve been another missed opportunity. Lawmakers proved us wrong | Editorial

·4 min read
David Santiago/dsantiago@miamiherald.com

Florida lawmakers wrapped up their regular legislative session in late March under a cloud of disappointment.

Ninety-eight people died in the middle of the night in what was, until last June, the unimaginable partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside. That lawmakers left Tallahassee, then, without passing comprehensive condominium and building reforms was unacceptable, as the Herald Editorial Board and many others declared.

Lawmakers this week finally announced an agreement between the House and Senate — a stalemate between both chambers had killed the bill earlier this year. In a matter of days, they passed the 88-page legislation unanimously.

It’s a feat, one that should’ve been accomplished sooner instead of the myriad of culture wars Republican leaders launched this year. Nevertheless, it’s an accomplishment, given how much strengthening Florida’s lax regulations needed. The legislation followed many of the findings from post-Surfside task forces by the Florida Bar, engineering associations and a Miami-Dade County grand jury.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who in the aftermath of the collapse would not commit to take action, signed the new law Thursday.

The unprecedented changes to inspection, safety and transparency requirements might come with sticker shock for some condo unit owners, in particular seniors and those on fixed incomes.

The reserve conundrum

The previous stalemate was over whether to force associations to keep financial reserves to pay for needed maintenance. State Rep. Danny Perez, R-Miami, didn’t budge on his stance that they should not have the ability to waive reserves. Until Thursday, Florida law allowed condo associations to do that and, as the Editorial Board learned after the collapse, a large number did.

Perez prevailed in the end, and we are glad. Forgoing reserves might save money in the short term, but condo owners could get hit with astronomical special assessments down the road — making them reluctant or unable to pay for possibly life-saving repairs. Champlain residents were hit with $15 million in assessments for structural and mechanical work after postponing major repairs and arguing over costs.

The new law gives associations until 2025 to begin fully funding reserves, but it still will be disruptive. Incoming House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, told the Herald this week that she will be on the lookout for its “unintended consequences.” Her colleagues should consider providing financial relief for condo owners. They could, for example, expand Florida’s PACE program, which offers eligible homeowners low-interest loans for energy conservation and hurricane-hardening improvements, to cover condo maintenance. The federal government should also step up.

It would be a shame if this much-needed reform package worsens Florida’s housing affordability crisis.

Inspections on the way

There are 105,000 condo units that are more than 50 years old in the state and 912,000 older than 30. Until now, inspections were required only in Miami-Dade and Broward counties after 40 years (following the collapse, Surfside and Boca Raton started requiring 30-year recertifications).

Under the new law, buildings of at least three stories across Florida will need inspections after 30 years, or after 25 years if they are within three miles of the coast. Every 10 years after that, they would have to be recertified again. Every decade, condo associations must also pay for a “structural integrity reserve study” that looks at the cash reserves needed for future major repairs.

These requirements will make buildings safer but will bring unpleasant and possibly expensive surprises to unsuspecting condo residents. Condo-association members have a reputation of keeping information from unit owners. Now, they must distribute a copy of the inspection report’s summary to all owners and post it “in a conspicuous place.” Condo sellers must disclose that information to buyers, and renters also will have access to it.

These are good first steps, but lawmakers can go further when they convene again in March. They must reconsider Doral Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez’s unsuccessful bill to create a statewide searchable database of condo associations’ documents, including inspections and reserve studies.

Such an undertaking would cost the state money, just like the recent reforms will hit the pockets of many condo owners. But the Surfside collapse has forced Florida to achieve a better balance between keeping costs down and safety.