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Condos could have trouble getting and keeping insurance. New safety demands could make condo living unaffordable, and chase off condo board volunteers. Rising seas could make flooding even more prevalent, eating away at condos’ foundational concrete.
At the first meeting of Broward County’s new Condominium Structural Issues Committee on Monday, elected officials and experts in condo law and construction aired some of the nettlesome challenges facing condominiums after the catastrophe at the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside in June.
The collapse of the 13-story Champlain remains a mystery and a rarity. But the tragedy is expected to affect condominium towers for years to come.
No firm recommendations on legal changes or changes to the building code have emerged yet. The workshop will continue on Aug. 23. A third meeting is expected on Aug. 30. The date of a fourth and final meeting has not been set.
The board has no authority to implement changes on its own, and the scope of the problems is large. But with members from the state Legislature, the cities, the County Commission and the Broward Board of Rules and Appeals, which oversees implementation of the building code, the committee can be an advocate for reforms later this year.
The committee talked of a potential insurance crisis, of the incompetence of some condo boards, and the rapidly rising seas. Condo residents don’t know what they might face.
“They’re just in fear. People are in fear,” said Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper, urging tough action.
Chief among the problems facing condos now is insurability. Insurance companies could play a big role in any new condo requirements.
Paul Handerhan of Federal Association for Insurance Reform said it is “highly likely” that insurance companies will want condos that are 20 years or older to get an inspection by a professional, stamped with an engineer’s seal, when the policy comes up for renewal, and possibly every five years thereafter.
Currently, in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, buildings must get a structural and electrical safety certification when they reach 40 years old, and then every 10 years subsequently.
Handerhan said older condos that are five stories or taller and on the coast will be subject to more scrutiny by insurers. If insurers see engineering reports like the one Champlain South had for its 40-year certification, indicating structural problems, they’d likely not renew, he said.
Another looming problem: Oceanfront condos will be exposed to more saltwater than they were designed for.
Broward County Chief Resilience Officer Dr. Jennifer Jurado said modeling shows alarming trends for coastal buildings. In some southern parts of the county, she said, groundwater is just beneath the surface, preventing rainwater from draining.
County models now show that sea level will rise 13 inches by 2035.
Board members talked about the impact of sea level rise on underground condo garages and support columns — considered critical problems at the Champlain.
The building code sets minimum standards for concrete. But it could be much better.
“It’d be a great idea, but you’re going to get a lot of pushback,” said Dan Lavrich, a structural engineer, calling deteriorating concrete “pervasive” along the coast and even inland.
Lavrich, who is chairman of Broward’s Board of Rules and Appeals, said getting higher standards into the code is “a matter of money, and it’s a matter of people not wanting to do it. I could tell you stories.”
Broward Mayor Steve Geller said it can be tough convincing condo owners to pay for repairs. He said he remembers what condo owners in Hallandale used to tell him about condo reserves and maintenance: “Sonny, I’m 82 years old. I don’t buy green bananas. I’m not paying to put up a roof.”
The competence of condo boards also has been a target for discussion. The collapse could make it worse, putting a chill on volunteers, fearful they could be sued for action or inaction on the boards.
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Condos are infamous for failing to properly maintain buildings, and failing to set up a healthy reserve fund. Board members aren’t necessarily experts in the right fields.
“We can’t turn this into a bashing of board members. … Usually you will find they are doing the best with what they know,” said Weston City Commissioner Mary Molina-Macfie.
The committee is scheduled to talk more about condo governance its next meeting.
Fred Nesbitt, president of the Galt Ocean Mile condo association in Fort Lauderdale, said rushing into changes might not be wise. He praised the Broward Board of Rules and Appeals for declaring last month that it wasn’t ready to talk about changes until the cause of the collapse is known, even though answers could be long in coming.
“I want to make sure we don’t overreact to the Champlain Tower collapse,” said Nesbitt. “I want to make sure the changes we’re talking about are really improvements. … Sometimes in a crisis mode we come up with a lot of ideas that aren’t as good as they could or should be.”