After a great deal of back-and-forth during this year’s regular legislative session, none of the condominium safety reforms that were very much in the spotlight after the Champlain Towers tragedy were passed. As my law firm partner Gary Mars wrote in an earlier column, this came as no surprise to many of us in the community association industry, as the changes involved extremely difficult issues and there appeared to be little, if any, pre-session legislative consensus.
Given the apparent lack of momentum, the notion that the state’s lawmakers would reach an agreement for sweeping reforms during the recent special session focusing on homeowners insurance would have been considered similarly unlikely. However, in a surprise move worthy of accolades given the immensity of what is at stake, legislators in both the House and Senate unanimously passed arguably the most far-reaching condominium safety reforms in Florida since Hurricane Andrew.
The changes include many of the proposals from engineering, legal and community association industry task forces aimed at studying the perceived shortcomings that led to the Surfside catastrophe. They require inspections for buildings three stories or higher 30 years after completion and every 10 years thereafter. Buildings within three miles of the coast must be inspected at 25 years, then every 10 years. The first buildings impacted are slated to be those constructed before July 1, 1992, as they must complete their first structural inspections prior to Dec. 31, 2024.
The inspections are aimed at identifying any substantial structural deterioration that may present life-safety dangers, and whether remedial or preventive repairs are recommended. The reports on their findings will be required to be distributed to association unit owners, prospective buyers and local building departments, which may then require the start of repairs within specified timeframes if substantial deficiencies are identified.
Associations will also be required to conduct reserve studies every 10 years for the funding of structural repairs and, most important, beginning by 2025 they will no longer be allowed to waive funding of many reserve components.
Condominium developers are also facing new requirements. Prior to completion and their transferring control of new associations to the unit owners, they are required to conduct a baseline structural study and an analysis of future maintenance and repair needs covering all primary structural elements, foundations, roofs, and other essential building components. They must also open and begin funding a reserves account, which will be provided to the new owner-controlled association.
In order to add teeth to the law and help ensure adherence, it also includes provisions that expose condominium association board members to personal liability if they ignore the new inspection and reserve study/funding requirements.
These requirements for both developers and condominium associations to conduct inspections and study/fund reserves truly represent a monumental milestone in the evolution of the state’s condominium laws. Effectively, they take the decisions of whether or not to collect the necessary funds from the owners, conduct the appropriate inspections and act on their finding out of the hands of volunteer board members. All associations will be required to collect the funds and take the required effective actions, and the records documenting everything will essentially be open for all to see.
As with any sweeping new reform that imposes substantial costs and requirements, the focus will next shift to how it will all be paid. A recent proposal from U.S. Representatives from Florida called for new federally backed low-interest loans for unit owners to help enable them to afford new condo association assessments for reserves and repairs. In addition, the Community Associations Institute is in the process of opening discussions with federal officials over a framework for the Federal Housing Administration to offer 30-year loans to condominium associations and housing cooperative corporations to finance structural repairs.
Those and other new measures from both the federal and state government may help alleviate the financial burdens these reforms may place on Florida condominium owners, who will soon be able to rest assured that structural elements in their buildings and others in the state will be receiving needed attention.
It is expected that these measures will help make Florida condominiums stronger and safer, and they should be welcomed by everyone who hopes to never again see another horrific tragedy like the one that claimed 98 lives in Surfside on June 24, 2021.
Roberto C. Blanch is a shareholder with the Coral Gables-based law firm of Siegfried Rivera who is board certified in community association law by The Florida Bar. He is one of the firm’s most prolific contributors to its association law blog at www.FloridaHOALawyerBlog.com. . RBlanch@SiegfriedRivera.com, www.SiegfriedRivera.com, 305-442-3334.
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