December 7, 2021

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Collapsed Florida tower could have been repaired faster under repealed law, experts say – NBC News

8 min read

SURFSIDE, Fla. — Late last year, after years of delays and disputes, the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association began a desperate search for $16.2 million to fix major structural damage that was slowly threatening the Surfside high-rise — and that may have contributed to the building’s partial collapse June 24.

The obvious place to look was the building’s reserve fund — extra money socked away to cover the cost of future repairs. But the account held just $777,000, according to condo board documents — nowhere near enough to soften the blow.

The collapse, which killed at least 54 people and left 86 others missing, occurred before the condo board could collect the needed money from residents and begin repairs. The cause of the collapse is unknown, and investigators, experts and advocates are trying to determine whether the uncompleted repairs played a role, whether the board could have seen the problem coming earlier — and whether a Florida law regulating condo repairs that was repealed a decade ago could have made a difference.

One way to keep track of needed repairs is a “reserve study,” in which condo boards bring in experts like engineers or certified specialists every few years to inspect buildings and estimate how much the boards should collect from residents to prepare for future fixes. The building’s financial documents, obtained by NBC News and NBC Miami, show that Champlain Towers South had not done a professional reserve study since at least 2016. That decision was legal, but it meant that planning was left to the board, a shifting group of volunteers with little training in building maintenance.

“If the owners would have had a reserve study, if the board was proactive and had funded its reserves, this never would have happened,” said Julio Robaina, a former Republican state legislator.

Rescue workers search in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South condominium in Surfside, Fla., on June 26. Gerald Herbert / AP

Robaina sponsored a 2008 law requiring condo associations to hire engineers or architects to submit reports every five years about how much it would cost to keep up with repairs.

The law lasted just two years before it was repealed in 2010, after Robaina left office. Robaina blamed pushback from real estate lawyers and property managers, who he said claimed that the law was too burdensome for condo owners. The legislator who sponsored the repeal, former state Rep. Gary Aubuchon, a Republican real estate broker and homebuilder, did not reply to messages seeking comment.

The repeal left Florida’s condo residents less protected than those in nine states that legally require reserve studies, according to the Community Associations Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for condo associations. Thirty-one other states, including Florida, regulate reserves in some way — although Florida is one of three states with loopholes that enable owners to opt out of requirements, the nonprofit said. Ten states have no regulations about reserves at all.

“One of the steps that should be taken by a building, especially an aging building, is having adequate funds available so that when you have to face significant cost challenges there’s an appropriate amount of money available,” said Gary Mars, a South Florida lawyer who represents condo associations.

A survey last year by the Community Associations Institute found that most homeowners associations are hesitant to increase residents’ fees, anticipating opposition, and therefore fail to plan for long-term infrastructure fixes.

“In postponing inspections, reserve studies, and — ultimately — complete repairs or renovations, boards often end up facing an exponentially more comprehensive and expensive project in the long run,” the report said.

Maxwell Marcucci, a spokesman for the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, declined to comment on reserve studies. In a previous statement to NBC News, he said the condo board was doing its best to ensure the building was safe. “They are not engineers and not building safety experts,” Marcucci said. “They hired experts, trusted experts, and at no point did the experts indicate that there was a threat of imminent collapse.”

The lack of a professional reserve study is a departure from what many experts say is best practice for condominiums, particularly older ones on the coast — like Champlain Towers South, built in 1981 — that have been exposed for decades to corrosive salt and water.

Robaina, who co-owns a property management company, said maintaining healthy reserves “is the single most important action that a condominium board needs to take.”

Florida law requires condo boards to maintain reserves for repairs over $10,000, but it does not say exactly how much to set aside. That means condo boards have some flexibility in avoiding saving for repairs that do not need to be made right away.

In addition, the law allows condo buildings to waive the reserve requirement altogether. Once it has passed its annual budget, a condo board can give residents the opportunity to opt out of collecting reserves by a vote of a majority of unit owners. The votes are common in Florida condo buildings, condo lawyers say.

That is what it appears Champlain Towers South did, lawyers and reserve experts said.

The experts pointed to the board’s reliance on special assessments — additional fees on top of residents’ normal monthly payments — to fund needed repairs. The board imposed a $1 million special assessment in 2016 for hallway renovations and a $350,000 special assessment in 2019 for work on a generator, a fuel pump and a fuel tank. Such lump-sum levies are indicative of a building whose owners have decided not to set aside enough reserves through regular monthly fees, choosing instead to wait until a big-ticket repair is needed to ask residents to pay for it, experts said. Many associations make that choice by repeatedly voting to waive or reduce the funding of their reserves.

“I can’t help but think that the building did that for years and years, which is why there was not enough funds available,” said Matthew Kuisle, Southeast regional director for Reserve Advisors, which prepares reserve studies. “Why would they do that? So they have lower fees. But in the long run, the fees are a small price to pay.”

The shortcomings of that approach started to become clear in 2018, when the board began inspecting the building before a checkup mandated by Miami-Dade County for buildings that reach 40 years old. In an October 2018 report, engineer Frank Morabito alerted the board to “major structural damage” to concrete slabs underneath the building’s pool deck and its entrance drive. He blamed a “major error” in the building’s construction and years of corrosion. He estimated the cost of repairs at $9 million.

Reeling from sticker shock, the board invited a Surfside building official to its November 2018 meeting. The official told the board that the building was “in very good shape,” according to minutes of the meeting. Some residents have said that led them to believe the situation was not dire.

Even so, the board began trying to find a way to repair the damage — and to pay for it.

Disagreements over the costs frustrated board members. Five members quit over two weeks in fall 2019. The condo association has had four presidents since 2018.

By late last year, the board had accepted that there was no safe way forward without doing the massive reconstruction Morabito recommended, along with repairs to a deteriorating roof. Morabito began preliminary work and found that the damage discovered in 2018 had gotten worse. The bill rose to more than $16 million.

The board scrambled for money. It found $707,000 left over from the previous special assessments and $777,000 more in reserves. But a quarter of the reserves were designated for insurance deductibles, leaving $556,000. The board chose not to tap the reserves just in case there was another emergency. That meant the building was short by $15.5 million, which the board voted in April to raise through a special assessment. The cost to residents would be $80,000 to $360,000 per unit.

“A lot of this work could have been done or planned for in years gone by. But this is where we are now,” board President Jean Wodnicki wrote to residents before the vote.

By last month, the board had started work on the roof, and it put other repairs out for bid. Responses were due July 7. Two weeks before the deadline, the building partly collapsed.

The remaining part of the partly collapsed 12-story Champlain Towers South condominium building falls in a controlled demolition Sunday.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The board’s nearly three-year struggle to start work on the concrete replacement project has loomed over the catastrophe’s aftermath. Investigators have not determined what caused the failure; the deteriorating supports are among the possibilities.

Experts say the extent of disrepair documented in the 2018 report raises questions about how the damage went unnoticed previously.

“I read the report, and I wondered how long the building looked that way,” said Robert Nordlund, founder and CEO of Association Reserves, a reserve study firm based in California. “Did it look that way in 1998? 2008? Because clearly there was some significant deterioration in that 2018 report.”

Documents reviewed by NBC News and NBC Miami, including audits, budgets, financial statements and board meeting minutes, do not indicate when the structural issues noted by Morabito started, though the board did pay to replace leaking pipes in the building’s parking garage in 2016. But the documents do show that the board did not perform professional reserve studies and instead relied on board members to determine how much to set aside for repairs. In 2016, an accountant performing a year-end audit noted that “an independent study has not been conducted to determine the adequacy of the current funding” and that “the estimates for future replacement costs are based upon estimates provided by the budget committee.”

Audits conducted by the same accountant in 2017, 2018 and 2019 included the same language. Last year, a different accountant provided a similar disclaimer.

Mars, the lawyer who represents condo associations, said he believes that the note was “the CPA saying, ‘We don’t have any official documentation to rely on.'”

The accountants who conducted the audits did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Jeffrey Rembaum, another lawyer for condo associations, pointed to figures in the audits that showed that from 2016 to 2020, the board did not update the amount of money needed to replace balconies and concrete. Each year, the board estimated needing $320,000 for the work, even after Morabito’s report found that much more extensive and costly repairs were needed.

“We know the building had millions in concrete repairs on the horizon,” Rembaum said. “So how did it come up with $320,000 for their current needs? If they’d had a reserve study and an engineer looked at what they had, they would have come up with a higher number. That suggests the board wasn’t regularly updating it.”

He added: “This is the effect of the Florida Legislature not requiring a reserve study by qualified people.”

More than a decade since his short-lived law on reserve studies was repealed, Robaina said he hopes lawmakers will change course and reimpose the mandate.

“This is a window of opportunity,” he said, “and unfortunately it took a tragedy that could have been prevented.”

Jon Schuppe reported from New York; Phil Prazan reported from Surfside, Florida

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