Florida legislators began work on updating the state’s condominium regulations in response to the Champlain Towers South collapse as a Senate committee advanced a bill Tuesday to impose inspection requirements statewide, including stricter standards for buildings near the coastline.
The measure, SB 1702, was unanimously approved by the Senate Community Affairs Committee and is expected to serve as the vehicle to attach other condo-related reforms, such as new regulations on disclosure of condo conditions and new oversight related to condo boards.
The bill would establish a mandatory structural inspection program for multi-family residential buildings that are greater than three stories and larger than 3,500 square feet — a requirement that could affect as many as 2 million residents in Florida.
But there is at least one thorny issue that remains unresolved and no legislation has emerged yet to address it: How to get condo owners to pay for repairs when they are identified by inspectors.
The governance structure of condominium associations allows them to elect boards of directors and often management companies, but when it comes to funding repairs, many associations are reluctant to impose the fees on the members who elected them. Under current laws, associations may waive the assessment requirements, leaving price tags in place and repairs neglected for years.
The assessment facing condo owners at Champlain Towers South after repairs for its 40-year recertification exceeded $15 million. After postponing major repairs amid bickering over costs, owners were hit with massive individual special assessments. A portion of the 12-story tower collapsed, killing 98 people, as repair work was under way. A Miami Herald analysis found design defects, poor construction, water intrusion and deferred concrete and structural repairs may have combined to contribute to the building’s abrupt failure.
The state estimates 2 million people reside in more than 912,000 condominium units that are 30 years or older. Of the 1.5 million condominium units in the state, another 141,773 are 20 to 30 years old, and more than 105,000 condominium units are more than 50 years old.
“There is no requirement that they be inspected,’’ said Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the bill’s sponsor. “There are no requirements that the unit owners are aware of the condition of their building, so while we all wish we could turn back time, what we can do is take meaningful action today to hopefully prevent this tragedy in other communities.”
The proposal builds on the 40-year inspection required on aging buildings in Miami-Dade and Broward counties by imposing it statewide. Inspections would be required once a building is 30 years old and every 10 years thereafter, unless the building is within three miles of the coastline. Buildings that are within three miles of coastline, and assumed to be more vulnerable to the corrosive effects of sea salt, are required to be inspected after 20 years and every seven years thereafter.
Inspections must be done by a licensed architect or engineer and include a two-phase process. The first is a visual inspection and, if it warrants, a “structural distress inspection” must be done by licensed engineers or architects. A copy of all inspection reports should be made to the building owner or board of a condominium or cooperative, as well as the building official in the city or county in which the building is located.
“We’re going to let the Florida Building Commission come up with their own standards that can be adopted at their discretion by local governments, but there needs to be a minimum standard through the state so this doesn’t happen again,” Bradley said.
For buildings built prior to 1992, they must have their first inspection completed by Dec. 31, 2024, under the measure.
The Department of Business and Professional Regulation estimates that the cost of these types of inspections will vary based on the size of the building. The recertification and building safety inspections currently being conducted in Miami-Dade and Broward counties cost $20,000 to $40,000 for a 15- to 20-story condominium and $2,000 to $4,000 for a small commercial building.
The bill also requires that condominium boards must distribute the report to all unit owners and must be provided for any potential buyer in a resale. Local governments will be allowed to impose timelines and penalties that apply to compliance with the inspections.
Engineering group concurs
The proposal tracks the recommendations of the engineering working group by the Florida Engineering Society, the American Council of Engineering Companies in Florida, architects and other associations, which suggested the 30-year and 20-year framework.
“We understand there’s a whole bunch more to this puzzle, but we don’t want to get into reserves and all that kind of stuff. That’s for other people to figure out,’’ said Allen Douglas, executive director of the Florida Engineering Society. “We just wanted to come up with something that we thought was the bare minimum of what should be done.”
But once inspections are complete and repairs are identified, there is nothing in state law now that requires condo associations to assess their members to pay for it.
Bradley said that Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, is expected to propose legislation that will address the waiver and require condominium associations to complete studies on their financial reserves.
“Reserve studies and waivers are all important pieces to the puzzle and I think they’ll be addressed,’’ she said after the meeting.
Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Doral Republican who has proposed a series of bills addressing condo reforms, said she hopes some legislator proposes ending the assessment waiver and also provides financial options for homeowners to pay for repairs, but she has no plans to propose it.
“It’s going to impact many, many of our families in Florida who are on fixed incomes, who perhaps may be daunted by a sudden increase in their reserves,’’ she said.
“But in order to avoid having this type of tragedy occur again in the future, it needs to be seriously looked at, as well as financing options ... to help people figure out how to pay for these structural repairs.
“I don’t know that it was a construction defect per se ..., and the fact that they neglected doing all the necessary improvements throughout the years,” she said. “And that, to me, seems to have more of an impact than it’s not that it wasn’t built properly.”
However, implementing a new inspection regime across the state is not expected to be easy. A task force convened by the Florida Bar concluded there was a potential shortage of structural engineers to meet increased demand for inspections, with only 650 current Florida experts who could conduct the certification have passed a rigorous state exam. Miami-Dade County already has a backlog of overdue 40-year recertifications that stretches for years.
There are other proposed reforms
Other condo reform proposals under consideration are in SB 394 sponsored by Rodriguez, aimed at condominium management which she said is “at the root of what happened at Champlain Tower.”
One proposal would require minimum education requirements for condo board members: classes to learn about reserve studies, construction law and other issues.
“It’s not going to be a very complicated curriculum,’’ Rodriguez said. “But at least just basic knowledge to give them a little background engaging on this project of being a board member.”
Rodriguez also wants the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation to create a database for condominiums that would include not just the name of the condo but the names of the board members, the management company if there is one, the approved annual budget and any certification reports from various inspections.
“This is all about creating more transparency and letting people have access to information more easily,’’ she said. “Currently, people can obtain this information but it is sometimes multi-step, very complicated, and it takes a lot of time, and I don’t think that it should take time.”
She has another bill, SB 274, that would create a Condominium Fraud Investigation Pilot Program within the Office of the Attorney General, using retired police officers, to investigate condominium-related fraud.
The measure is inspired by the efforts of former state Rep. Julio Robaina, a Hialeah Republican who spent years trying to strengthen the state’s condominium laws only to have the Legislature repeal many of them a decade ago.
“We do know that in South Florida there are a lot of incidents of cases where board members commit fraud,’’ Rodriguez said. “They embezzle funds ... and they need to be prosecuted.”