The Surfside Tower was just another condominium

Anear most a condominium tower in Surfside, Florida collapsed last week, the questioning began almost immediately. Some residents have accused the building’s condominium association of acting too slowly to correct known structural flaws identified in a 2018 engineering report. Recent reports have highlighted the dissent among the owners. As someone who studies condos – their history, architecture, politics, and social dynamics, in Florida and across the United States – I too have wondered if the divided ownership of the building has contributed to the disaster of June 24, which left at least 18 dead. people and left more than 140 missing. Could a single owner have better addressed the concerns of engineers and occupants than an association of 136 owners?

Condos have long been a big business and a way of life in Southeast Florida, which by the 1970s had become the center of condominium living in the United States. Today, about one in five homeowners in US cities and suburbs live in a multi-family complex rather than a single-family home, according to US Census figures; in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, this share rises to one in three. Surfside residents described Champlain Towers South as a real community: “There was a beautiful mix of cultures and people in this building,” said one resident. Wall Street DayI. “People from South America, Cuban Jews, American Jews, American nationals.

In many ways, the Surfside Tower was no different than the thousands of other high-rise condominiums in Florida. These, on the other hand, face many of the same risks, including their proximity to the ocean during a period of sea level rise, as single-owner apartment buildings and other properties. concrete and steel along the Florida coast. A number of reports suggest that the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association functioned well and acted methodically, despite considerable resistance, in figuring out how to resolve the problems identified by an engineer.

Investigators still have a lot to learn about the causes of the disaster. The vagaries of the condominium format, including the need to raise $ 15 million for repairs through a “special assessment” on owners, could have slowed the building’s response to structural problems. Absent ownership, common in many condominiums, especially in cosmopolitan resorts and business centers, could have hampered repairs further.

And yet the collapse could also have been caused by other as yet unidentified factors that were not mentioned in the 2018 engineer’s report. “From what I see, [that report] didn’t sound like something I would say, ‘Bring people out’, ”said Norma Jean Mattei, professor of engineering at the University of New Orleans. The Washington Post. “Deterioration played a role, but that’s not what caused this failure. Something else must have pushed that building over it. In other words, Champlain Towers South might have suffered not from bad ownership or bad governance, but bad circumstances and bad luck.

Bbecause of disaster in Surfside, long-standing questions about condominiums in Florida and elsewhere are resurfacing. The condo, like other forms of co-ownership such as the cooperative, occupies an ambiguous place in American life. Most American buyers have historically preferred single-family homes and viewed other types of housing as second-rate. Geographers, sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists have argued for decades that the condominium system is fundamentally impractical, little more than a ploy concocted by developers to entice home buyers with good locations, luxury amenities and empty promises of community. Others viewed condominium arrangements as an inevitable fiasco, fearing that a group of amateur homeowners could eventually manage a building competently.

Yet the single-family apartment emerged in the 19th century in cities like New York and Washington, DC, for those who could afford a home but didn’t need or want one, with careful design effort. and marketing to distinguish them from work. -class buildings. The initiator of the apartment for sale in the United States in the 1880s opted for a simple system: the corporate title “cooperative”, in which the association holds title to the entire complex and individual ownership is transmitted in perpetuity, in many cases $ 1. – year-round, “owner” leases. In some ways, this is a superior model. Single title makes it easier for associations to take out commercial loans for repairs, while leases allow them to evict homeowners who become a liability.

Yet the association’s power, especially in screening resales, has made mortgage lenders suspicious. And in a nation deeply committed to unfettered property, that has also limited the appeal of owning an apartment. Beginning in the late 1950s, the mortgage industry, anticipating untapped demand, began promoting condominium deals in Florida and then nationwide. As early as 1921, Congress questioned the whole premise of apartments for sale, causing owners to toast about its viability. In 1974, an aggrieved landlord, also testifying before Congress, asked, “Can a condominium really work?” More recently, the dysfunctional condo policy has been the subject of television comedies in shows such as Seinfeld. Since 2009, disputes between landlords and homeowners associations have aired on Sunday mornings in South Florida on an AM radio show called “Condo Craze & HOAs,” hosted by attorney Eric M. Glazer, Judge Judy for the condominium coast.

Behind much of the skepticism of the condominium system lay tensions between private property rights and community obligations. Between the 1880s and World War I, condominiums in the United States were mostly directly sponsored by future tenants (foreshadowing the recent wave of baugruppen in Berlin). By the 1920s, however, speculative developers came to dominate. When selling apartments, they learned to emphasize lifestyle, including ease of physical maintenance (“no lawn to mow”, many advertisements read), while minimizing responsibilities. .

But owning an apartment, like any other property, comes with its own burdens, less tangible than a lawn. Whatever the system, ownership transforms tenants, ready or not, into owners: the members of a condominium automatically become co-owners of a legal person responsible for the common elements. However, as almost anyone who has ever owned an apartment in a tall building will know, rare is a condo owner who listens to this duty, and even rarer is one who attends council meetings. association, let alone who sits on the board.

And yet developers and sales agents recognized this shortcoming early on. While refining their marketing strategies, they began to encourage buildings to hire “professional” managers, leaving associations with little direct responsibility. Governance could still be difficult. In co-ops in New York and Washington, where associations typically select new buyers (apparently for financial security reasons), battles have erupted over whether to allow resale to Jews and, later, women. single, black and gay men. Over the past decades, condominium residents have feuded over everything from cosmetic upgrades (redecorating lobbies) to installing electric vehicle charging stations. These disputes indicate why some early critics believed condos would inevitably lead to huge problems, including premature physical degradation.

Tthese predictions has turned out to be true sometimes, but hardly ever in the United States In America, our faith in a stable and transparent real estate system supersedes our deep aversion to public oversight of private transactions. As a result, the regulation of condominium-style arrangements in this country, even in free-wheeling Florida, has been among the most robust in the world, making American condo owners the envy of their counterparts in places as diverse as the United States. ‘Australia, China and Israel.

People around the world who follow the Surfside news are now aware of Miami-Dade County’s requirement that buildings be recertified by engineers or architects after 40 years. But since the 1970s, Florida has also introduced a series of other regulations to ensure safe, fair, and relatively effective governance of condominiums, and other states have followed suit in many ways.

When developers experimented with locking associations into management contracts at non-competitive rates (as detailed in John D. MacDonald’s disaster novel in 1977, Condominium), reduced selling prices by retaining ownership of common areas and re-letting them to associations (also at inflated rates), or made monthly charges unsustainable by keeping control over associations until an overwhelming majority of units are sold, the state has banned these practices. To allow a faster and more economical resolution of disputes between owners, and between owners and associations, it has put in place provisions to resolve disputes outside the courts.

None of this guarantees that when major repairs become necessary, homeowners will be able to make decisions or raise funds quickly. And even as states push associations to take more account of the unique pitfalls of condominium arrangements, owners are still exposed to other risks, including, in some cases, the uncertainties inherent in life on the waterfront. water in a context of climate change. Ultimately, the condominium format could prove to be a factor in the Surfside disaster, but any presumption of guilt can now falsely reassure people who have an interest in other forms of real estate and face ugliness, scarcity and sometimes disaster. surprises that are a possibility in the property of all kinds.


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