The recent tragedy in Surfside has shed light on safety issues in condo buildings in Florida. With so many injured and allegations that the condominium association board was aware of the problems, many are asking “why didn’t they fix the problems?” Unfortunately, most condominium association boards are composed of volunteers, and their responsibilities vary from organizing social events and dealing with parking problems to handling complaints and addressing safety issues. These volunteer boards usually do not have the expertise or manpower to handle technical details related to cracks in the foundation of the building or financing options. And so, much like the Surfside condominium situation, problems sometimes not only sit but get worse when not properly handled.
Condominium Owner Associations (COA) are governed by bylaws, which list the duties and responsibilities of the association to its owner-members. While details of bylaws may change from one organization to another, they are all likely to include certain elements, as listed below.
Enforce the rules
Some COAs hire a management company to handle the day-to-day management of the condo building. This can be a beneficial approach because it maintains unbiased enforcement of rules. Board members, being condo owners themselves, may be tempted to show favoritism (or bias) in the enforcement of rules, but a management company is not likely to do so.
However, not being part of the community can be a two-edged sword. Since the management company doesn’t live there, they may not be consistently diligent. The COA has a responsibility to maintain constant and regular contact, ensuring that the company is faithfully fulfilling the responsibilities of the bylaws on behalf of the COA.
Monitor building maintenance
It is also common for the condominium association board to hire a property manager to see to the maintenance and upkeep of the common areas, security, utilities, and amenities that benefit the entire community. While homeowners are responsible for the upkeep of their own units, any issues that affect multiple units are the responsibility of the COA. It does not have to affect the entire building or all units. For instance, lighting in the hallway on one floor of a multi-level condominium would be the responsibility of the COA or the property manager that it hired, since the hall is an area common to multiple units.
Demonstrate fiduciary responsibility
The COA has a fiduciary responsibility to manage the money of their owner-members in an ethical and responsible manner. There are business and financial practices that are reasonable and prudent that all homeowners should be able to expect and demand from their COA.
The condominium association board is responsible for ensuring that funds are being used efficiently and within budget constraints. The COA should be in regular communication with the property manager to make sure they are working within the budget and focusing on the priorities that the COA has set.
If the COA board does not include an accountant or other financial expert, they should engage the services of a CPA or financial advisor experienced in working with condominium and homeowner associations.
Plan for the future
The COA is responsible for planning for the future. This includes ensuring that there are sufficient funds in the reserve account, set aside specifically for future maintenance and repairs. Apart from upgrades, priority should be placed on maintaining the quality and safety of existing structures, utilities, etc. This responsibility is often overlooked.
What Went Wrong at Champlain Towers
The tragedy of the collapse of a large portion of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida on June 24, 2021 could have been avoided, had the COA properly fulfilled its responsibilities. The problem was not that they did not know about the needed repairs; the problem was that they did not have the reserves to pay for them, and infighting and lack of expert financial guidance delayed the needed repairs until it was too late.
In March 2020, a review of the condominium’s structure revealed that parts of their building had zero years of remaining useful life —including cracking concrete around the entrance area and garage— meaning immediate repairs were needed. The report reviewed a 2018 engineer’s study that warned of “major structural damage” in the building’s concrete.
The report also revealed that they had only 6.9% of the reserves needed to complete the repairs. Subsequent communications with homeowners admitted that the COA had never before had a reserve budget study done to assess how much they should have set aside and that they had been turned down by multiple lenders because they lacked sufficient funds to pay back the loan. Internal squabbling, which included board members resigning in frustration, delayed the decision to do the repairs until March 2021, just two months before the collapse.
So a minimum of 3 years passed, and possibly more if earlier engineer reports also outlined deterioration, from when the COA knew there were serious problems to when they finally issued a decision. These corrections could have been addressed before they had become prohibitively expensive and before they became deadly.
What a Condo Owner Should Do
Know your COA’s bylaws. Attend meetings. Stay aware of issues and watch for signs of problems. If you believe the COA or particular members have not fulfilled their duties, address this to the board. Get other homeowners in your condominium involved and try to resolve the issues when they are fairly small before they balloon out of control. This is the biggest lesson all COAs and condo owners should learn from the tragedy of Champlain Towers.
If you believe your condominium association board or individual board members have been particularly or intentionally negligent in the above-mentioned responsibilities and their negligence has caused harm, reach out to me at (954)448-7288. As a Florida personal injury attorney with a track record of winning significant compensation for my clients, my goal is to always fight for the rights of the little guy against big business and big insurance companies. Reach out today to see how I can help you.