Florida fails to pass condo safety measures following Surfside collapse

In the nine months since 98 people died in the collapse of a Surfside, Florida, condominium, state lawmakers have pledged to pass measures that could help avoid a similar disaster.

On Friday, they failed.

Negotiations between the Florida Senate and House of Representatives, both controlled by Republicans, broke down, with the two sides unable to agree on a bill that would require inspections of aging condo buildings and mandate that condo boards conduct studies to determine how much they need to set aside for repairs. The talks were undone by a disagreement over how much flexibility to give condo owners in the funding of those reserves.

“When we came up here, we came up here with one goal and that was to pass legislation with regard to condominium reform that was going to make a difference,” state Rep. Daniel Perez, a Miami-Dade County Republican, said. “Unfortunately, it did not make it toward the finish line.”

Perez sponsored a bill that sought to close a loophole that allowed condo associations to avoid putting money into reserves. Associations commonly waive the funding of reserves in order to keep owners’ fees down, but critics say that makes it difficult to plan for and afford necessary repairs.

The Senate rejected Perez’s provision, saying it would impose a heavy financial burden on condo owners. Perez would not compromise.

The stalemate means that, barring a last-minute revival of talks, Florida condo law will remain unchanged despite broad calls for reform. There will be no statewide requirement for safety inspections of older condo buildings.

Martin Langesfeld, whose sister, 26, and brother-in-law, 28, died in the collapse, said it was “shocking and disappointing to see how little attention was given to changing legislation to avoid a horrific catastrophe from occurring once again.”

He and other victims’ families “would have expected the House and the Senate to have been able to work together in changing Florida’s uneven condo laws,” Langesfeld said. “Change must be made. Lives are at risk. ”

State Sen. Jennifer Bradley, a Republican who sponsored the competing bill, did not immediately return messages from NBC News seeking comment.

Asked about the failure of condo reforms at a news conference, state Senate President Wilton Simpson said, “I’m not sure why it fell apart.” He added, “Clearly, we did not get together with the House on that bill, and so unfortunately it did not pass.”

Enacting condo reforms has been difficult in Florida, where each year part-time lawmakers have 60 days to pass new laws, and where veteran lobbyists and trade groups hold outsize influence, enabling the condo industry to fight measures that owners see as too restrictive or expensive .

Inspections and reserves became key components of proposed safety requirements following the June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South.

While the cause of the collapse remains under investigation, internal condo association documents revealed that the board had failed for years to keep enough money in reserve to cover repairs. In 2018, as the 12-story building prepared for a 40-year checkup required by Miami-Dade County – one of two Florida counties that require any kind of condo inspection – an engineer alerted the board to “major structural damage” that required $ 9 million in repairs. With less than $ 1 million in reserves, the board bickered over how to proceed, and the price tag rose to $ 15 million. The board was in the process of obtaining bids when a section of the building crumbled.

Because of what happened at Champlain Towers South, Perez said, it was not right to continue giving condo boards the ability to choose not to prepare for repairs.

“Many associations did not want the inability to waive reserves. And I think they had a little bit more of an influence in the Senate than they did in the House, ”Perez said. “That was not a negotiable piece for us. We were never going to negotiate the waiving of reserves, because that is part of the problem that caused the incident at Surfside. ”

Friday’s breakdown also means that condos will not be required to conduct “reserve studies” in which engineers periodically inspect a building and tell the board how much it needs to set aside to make necessary repairs. Lawmakers mandated reserve studies in 2008, but the bill was repealed two years later at the urging of condo associations who complained about the cost.

After the Surfside collapse, the sponsor of that 2008 measure, former state Rep. Julio Robaina, told NBC News: “If the owners would have had a reserve study, if the board was proactive and had funded its reserves, this would never have happened.”

William Sklar, a lawyer who represents developers and led a condo-reform task force at the Florida Bar, said he was “very disappointed in our Legislature.” The task force issued a set of recommendations in October, including making it harder – but not impossible – for condos to waive the funding of reserves.

Sklar criticized Perez and the state House of Representatives for demanding a “full funding of reserves” that he said would be “too much of a financial burden” on condo owners. That goes beyond what his task force recommended, he said.

“What is extremely disappointing is that the leadership could not come to terms on such essential issues that affect over 4.5 million Florida residents who own condos,” Sklar said.

He added: “We were that close. Up until today. ”

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