Florida lawmakers concluded their regular legislative session at the end of March under a cloud of disappointment.
Ninety-eight people died in the middle of the night in what was, until last June, the unimaginable partial collapse of the South Champlain Towers in Surfside. That lawmakers left Tallahassee, then, without enacting comprehensive condominium and building reforms was unacceptable, as the Herald editorial board and many others have said.
Lawmakers finally announced a House-Senate deal this week — a standoff between the two chambers killed the bill earlier this year. In a few days, they spent the 88 page legislation unanimously.
It’s a feat, which should have been accomplished sooner instead of the myriad culture wars launched by Republican leaders this year. Still, it’s an accomplishment, given the need to enforce Florida’s lax regulations. The legislation followed numerous findings from the Florida Bar’s post-Surfside task forces, engineering associations, and a Miami-Dade County grand jury.
Governor Ron DeSantis, who following the collapse would not commit to act, signed the new law on Thursday.
The unprecedented changes to inspection, security and transparency requirements could be shocking to some condominium unit owners, especially seniors and people on fixed incomes.
The enigma of the reserve
The previous stalemate was whether to force associations to keep financial reserves to pay for necessary maintenance. State Rep. Danny Perez, R-Miami, hasn’t budged on his position that they shouldn’t have the option to waive reservations. Until Thursday, Florida law allowed condo associations to do so, and as the Editorial Board learned after the collapse, many did.
Perez ended up winning and we’re delighted. Dropping reservations could save money in the short term, but condo owners could be hit with astronomical special appraisals down the road, making them unwilling or unable to pay for repairs that could save lives. lives. Champlain residents have been hit with $15 million assessments for structural and mechanical work after postponing major repairs and squabbling over costs.
The new law gives charities until 2025 to start fully funding reserves, but it will still be disruptive. New House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, told the Herald this week that she would be on the lookout for its “unintended consequences.” His colleagues should consider offering financial assistance to condo owners. They could, for example, expand Florida’s PACE program, which provides eligible homeowners with low-interest loans for energy conservation and hurricane improvements, to cover condominium maintenance. The federal government should also intervene.
It would be a shame if this much-needed reform program worsened Florida’s housing affordability crisis.
Checks along the way
There are 105,000 condo units that are over 50 years old in the state and 912,000 over 30 years old. Until now, inspections were only required in Miami-Dade and Broward counties after 40 years (after the collapse, Surfside and Boca Raton began requiring 30 one-year recertifications).
Under the new law, buildings at least three stories across Florida will have to be inspected after 30 years, or after 25 years if they are within three miles of the coast. Every 10 years after that, they would have to be recertified again. Every decade, condominium associations must also pay for a “Structural Integrity Reserve Study” which examines the cash reserves needed for future major repairs.
These requirements will make buildings safer, but will bring unpleasant and possibly costly surprises to unsuspecting residents. Members of the condominium association have a reputation for keeping information about unit owners. Now, they must distribute a copy of the summary of the inspection report to all owners and post it “in a conspicuous place”. Condo sellers must disclose this information to buyers, and tenants will also have access to it.
These are good first steps, but lawmakers can go further when they meet again in March. They must reconsider Senator Doral Ana Maria Rodriguez’s unsuccessful bill to create a statewide searchable database documents from the condominium associations, including inspections and reserve studies.
Such a venture would cost the state money, just as recent reforms will hit the pockets of many co-owners. But the Surfside collapse forced Florida to strike a better balance between cost containment and safety.
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