The line of condominiums and hotels along Collins Avenue that offer residents sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean is now broken up by a haunting pile of rubble.
A fortnight after Champlain Towers South, a 12-storey apartment building with 136 units, collapsed in the Miami suburb of Surfside, officials in south Florida this week called off the search for survivors.
Emergency crews switched their focus to recovering the bodies of victims of the collapse, which, as of Friday evening, had killed at least 79 people with a further 61 “potentially unaccounted for”.
The search for the cause of the collapse has also begun, although investigators say it is too soon to know how long it will take — let alone what the final answer will be.
Yet what is clear is that Champlain Towers South needed to undergo millions of dollars worth of repairs as part of a 40-year “recertification”, a process established in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to ensure that buildings remain safe in the face of decades of abuse from Florida’s sun, sea and salt.
Organising those repairs fell to the board of the condominium association, a legal entity staffed by volunteer owners elected by other residents, which maintains the structure and common areas of a building comprising individually owned apartments.
The repairs were delayed because of disputes over the cost. This had ballooned from $9m to $15m before the board voted in April to fund them via a “special assessment”, a charge levied for a specific project and a dreaded prospect for many condo owners who must stump up their share.
There are parallels to the crippling bills that some apartment owners are being forced to pay as landlords upgrade the cladding on their buildings in response to the deadly Grenfell fire in London four years ago.
Fewer than a third of condo associations in the US have sufficient funds saved up for big-ticket repairs such as structural work or replacing a roof, and experts say delays and disagreements are common not just in Florida but across the US.
“Every condominium is like a little micro-society,” said Carolina Sznajderman Sheir, a partner at Eisinger Law that specialises in condominium law.
Sheir said that, while the 40-year recertification might sound like a “very matter-of fact” process, it often results in infighting among residents. “Here’s why it’s difficult: we’re talking about monumental projects, we’re talking about millions of dollars in restoration.”
“Boards that levy assessments are not popular boards,” she added. “People don’t want to pay huge assessments . . . And politics are politics, whether they’re national or on a tiny little board.”
Marta Reeves knows only too well how the process can descend into acrimony. Her family has lived for more than three decades at the Imperial at Brickell, a 161-unit building located about 12 miles south-west of Champlain Towers South. Built in 1983 along Biscayne Bay, its distinctive “red wall” can be seen in the opening credits of the 1980s television show “Miami Vice”.
The situation at the Imperial underscores how debates over how to pay for repairs can lead to hostility: owners with varying incomes and differing philosophies over how much maintenance is necessary snipe at one another, sometimes over Facebook or email.
Reeves won a seat on the Imperial condo board in 2010, and was part of a co-ordinated slate of officers elected in March 2018. The five new board members passed a $1m special assessment to repair the roof, cooling tower and elevators because the building lacked enough reserves to pay for the work.
The board subsequently decided to replace the 944 windows along the famous red wall; an engineer’s report from more than a decade ago had said they were reaching the end of their useful life. The building’s 40-year certification, coming due in 2023, called for a waterproof “envelope”, while new building codes specified the glass should be able to resist the impact of hurricanes that batter Florida’s coastline.
So the board passed a $9m assessment, which would have cost homeowners between $45,000 and $62,000 per unit. Despite securing financing to help homeowners bear the cost, Reeves and her fellow four board members then lost their bid for re-election in February 2020.
“It’s not a popular job when, after years of not fixing things in a timely manner, the piper is going to come,” said Reeves. “That’s what got us voted out.”
Reeves looked on in frustration as the new board tried to tackle the repairs with what she perceived as less organisational acumen than before. “I’m not saying that they’re not fixing it,” she said. “They’re putting Band-aids on it.”
Rissig Licha, a member of the Imperial’s current board, dismissed such suggestions. In an emailed statement, she said the board had “made compliance with the 40-year recertification its primary objective since assuming office”.
The board also said it had “actively communicated” with owners during the process and had sought out “the best structural and construction experts and specialists at considerable expense”.
Florida has 1.5m condos, more than any other state. State law requires associations to have a schedule to pay for big repairs, but there is a loophole: homeowners can vote to waive paying into a reserve fund. Only six states require condos to maintain “adequate” reserves without giving homeowners the option to waive the requirement.
Sheir, the attorney, noted that many of Florida’s condo owners are retirees and are therefore less concerned with the long-term upkeep of their property. They would prefer to keep the monthly association dues as low as possible, she added.
“People just don’t want to pay higher assessments,” she said. “They’d rather have the money in their pocket than in someone else’s.”
Failing to keep money aside for capital improvements is a problem across the US, but it is particularly acute in Florida, where the climate exacts a harsher toll on buildings. Constructors use concrete because the weight of the material protects against hurricanes, but over time Ultraviolet rays and salty air end up corroding the material, according to Sinisa Kolar, vice-president of the engineering and architectural consulting firm Falcon Group.
Some local politicians have suggested that Florida should cut the recertification process from 40 years to 20, which Kolar said would “make everybody aware of the work that they absolutely need”.
But Robert Nordlund, chief executive of Association Reserves, is sceptical of whether legislation can force condo owners to budget for future repairs.
What might make more of a difference, he said, is if insurers and mortgage lenders considered the state of a condo association’s finances when setting premiums or making a loan. Lenders generally only require that a condo association’s reserve fund be 10 per cent funded before they are willing to give a mortgage to a buyer.
“The risk factors are there, and they’re so obvious,” he said. “I don’t know why they’re missing those clues . . . I wonder if this is a time that they will start to learn and refine their underwriting standards.”
The Surfside disaster has gripped the residents at Imperial, just as it has at condo buildings throughout Miami.
Emergency support columns were placed in the building’s parking garage last week, but Licha said the structural engineers hired by the condo association “have not identified repairs or conditions not ordinary and consistent with similarly situated buildings of the same age group”. Reeves agrees with the current board that the apartment block is structurally sound.
Still, at least one resident seemed unnerved this week. He stopped his car in the garage to tell Reeves that he had written to the board to express his worries. She told him to keep writing: tragedies sometimes bring change.
“It is a very high cost,” he replied.