VENICE — Preventing future condominium disasters like the one in Surfside will require changes in the way their associations operate.
And that means changing Florida’s condo laws, a process that “won’t lend itself to speed,” attorney Matthew Shapiro said recently.
Shapiro was an expert on a panel assembled by USA TODAY Network-Florida, along with Paul Novack, an attorney who is also a former mayor of Surfside, and Gene Santiago, the chief building officer for the village of Biscayne.
Novack said that a number of issues need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive solution, including inspections, maintenance reserves and insurance.
It mainly comes back to the association board, he and Shapiro agreed, though they differed on some particulars.
Boards are largely made up of volunteers without experience in condominium law or management, Shapiro said. They’re well meaning but have a natural tendency to put off big dollar projects, and a waiver of reserves only requires the approval of a majority of units represented at a meeting, not the total number of units.
If they didn’t have the option of waiving reserves, he said, then they wouldn’t be subject to pressure by fellow owners to delay maintenance projects to the point when the only way to pay for them is a loan or a special assessment.
It could also reduce the risk of someone sinking a large sum into an expensive unit and then getting hit with an assessment they can’t pay, Shapiro said.
The buyer might elect to have an inspection but it will be of the unit, not the entire building, he said, and most buyers aren’t in a position to evaluate the association’s financial stability and reserves.
Novack also said that reserves should be mandatory, but he had less empathy for board members.
No one is forced to serve on a board, he said, adding the state should require that board members undergo regular training because they have a responsibility to the public as well as to the unit owners.
“If they seek it, they should be up to the task,” he said.
Shapiro said he’d be in favor of the state undertaking inspections of high-risk buildings now, with state oversight paid for by the association under a tiered system based on the size of the condominium.
Novack said it might even be appropriate for the state to set up a fund for maintenance costs as an infrastructure need for a while after reserves are required.
“We can’t just mandate a responsibility that’s impossible to fulfill,” he said.
Santiago also called for a major change in the law, to require invasive testing by a structural engineer and then verification of the results by a government agency.
The fact that a building has been standing for decades is a pretty good sign that it was designed well, he said.
But if an inspection consists only of what’s visible to the naked eye, a problem will go undetected unless “it bleeds through,” he said.
During a prior state building boom it wasn’t uncommon for construction workers to use salt water in the concrete mix because it was handy. Years later, he said, “all that’s left is a rust mark” where rebar used to be.
And salt air on a building is a “cancer that’s going on every day,” Santiago said.
It’s when the slab collapses at a column that a catastrophe like Champlain Towers occurs, he said.
“If you don’t see the structure, any inspection you do is worthless,” he said.