It feels a bit out of character, but I’ve been somewhat obsessed with the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Florida. I feel like I’ve gotten to know the community from reading stories about those who survived and those who likely did not. Now I’m emotionally invested in getting answers and solutions. One thing I hope people consider is how these high-rise dwellings finance their maintenance. It seems pretty clear that a big part of the problem in this case was that the residents were not prepared to pay the hefty and unexpected costs of making urgently needed repairs. In the following example, it’s clear that a lack of transparency was a contributing factor. An inspection report in 2018 started the ball rolling when it found serious structure problems with the concrete foundation. There wasn’t an indication that this might cause a catastrophic failure, but it meant that the building wouldn’t pass its 40-year inspection which was due this year. This meant the residents were going to have to pony up via a major increase in their maintenance dues, but this wasn’t reliably disclosed to new buyers, and that must have put many of them in an untenable position.
Condo owner Adalberto Aguero told The Post that he and his wife were not aware of the 2018 inspection report when they purchased their one-bedroom unit in mid-2019 — a process that involved an interview with a board member. They did not attend condo board meetings but were aware of the resignation of one board president.
“There was a lot of fighting and bickering,” said Aguero. From the correspondence the couple received, he said, “you get the feeling that things were not right.”
Earlier this year, the couple received an assessment for $80,000 over more than a decade for their share of the pending repairs — a price Aguero said seemed steep. “I thought it was a very high amount of money,” he said. But they had renovated their place and loved the condo. “We had no choice. What were we going to do?”
Sure enough, “many condo owners balked at paying for the extensive improvements,” which delayed the board agreeing on and initiating a plan.
As recently as April, residents appeared divided over the repairs — with dozens signing a letter that questioned the details of the proposed spending and asked the board to consider a lower assessment. “We cannot afford an assessment that doubles the amount of the maintenance dues currently being paid,” the group wrote.
It might be tempting to criticize these residents who balked at the price and then lost their homes or their lives, but people can’t pay for things they can’t afford, and some of them didn’t even have the luxury of knowing that the building had serious problems when they entered into contracts to live there. The result was compromised safety, and while we can go back and look at the minutes of the board meetings and question their performance, it’s asking a lot to expect these types of bodies to be responsible for the structural integrity of a high-rise building. Their task was pretty thankless, and they’re not structural engineers.
There needs to be an examination of how residential high-rise real estate approaches maintenance and risk, with a focus on evening out how its all paid for and perhaps a whole different approach to inspections and oversight. Residents need better transparency, but boards also have to either be relieved of responsibility or have more authority to act in the face of resistance or backlash.
This was a particularly awful and extreme demonstration of the shortcomings of the current system, but there must be countless similar properties that are not making timely safety upgrades for similar reasons. Rethinking all of this must be part of the reaction to the Champlain Towers disaster.