Fall of Surfside Condo Unleashes Frenzy of Enforcement Action by Building Departments

By Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
July 10, 2021 Updated: July 11, 2021

By Rene Rodriguez, Ana Claudia Chacin, and Joey Flechas
From Miami Herald

MIAMI—The collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside introduced a new term to the non-condo dweller’s lexicon: 40-year recertification.

Now, after the disaster in Surfside, everyone’s heard of them. And cities throughout Miami-Dade are in a frenzied rush to see which condo buildings within their boundaries are in line for the critical 40-year structural checkup that Champlain Towers South was about to undergo when it shockingly without warning fell—and which other Miami-area buildings are overdue.

The Champlain collapse has raised questions about whether municipal authorities have been doing their duty to ensure that structural recertifications are carried out. The early evidence suggests no.

Rescue personnel work in the rubble at the Champlain Towers South Condo, in Surfside, Fla., on June 25, 2021. (Gerald Herbert/AP Photo)

For condos, the process normally begins with municipalities sending a letter to the condo board saying: You are coming due. Records obtained by The Miami Herald show that some cities and towns have neglected to send those notices and in cases where they were sent some boards did not respond—or even accept receipt of the certified letter.

That changed the day after the collapse in Surfside, which unleashed a fusillade of letters, notices and threats to fine or even demolish condominium buildings.

For instance, this past Tuesday, Miami Beach, which is in the process of visual inspections of all of its 507 buildings due for a 40-year recertification or the follow-up 50-year checkup, issued a “notice of violation” to the Port Royale Condo at 6969 Collins Ave., 17 blocks south of the doomed Champlain building. The notice cited “evidence of structure deterioration” including concrete “spalling,” which is a type of deterioration also noted in a previous inspection at Champlain, eliciting no enforcement action.

Miami Beach’s notice, one of several just issued, demanded that the condo association respond within 48 hours. The notice contained ominous wording about the government’s right to declare the building “UNSAFE” and the eventual possibility that the building could be “demolished without further notice” if nothing is done and the county’s Unsafe Structures Board so orders.

Building management referred the notice to the engineers already at work on Port Royale’s 50-year recertification, and a response was provided, the city said.

Reached on Friday, the city said no, the residents of the building are in no danger of imminent removal, leaving some to wonder whether the condition was serious or not.

In one of the more immediate and striking reactions to the collapse, on July 2, North Miami Beach ordered the evacuation of the 10-story Crestview Towers Condominium, deeming it not safe for occupancy, after the building finally filed its report on an inspection that had been conducted on Jan. 11, 2021.

Florida Condo
The 156-unit Crestview Towers in North Miami Beach, Fla., on July 2, 2021. (Rebecca Santana/AP Photo)

In the wake of the collapse of the 12-story Champlain tower, questions linger about who bears responsibility for the calamity. Those questions include whether Surfside’s building department was sufficiently aggressive in persuading the Champlain board to expedite repairs after an engineer, hired by the board as a consultant, identified “major structural damage” to the concrete slab that serves as the ceiling of the garage and the underside of the pool deck, roughly where the building is suspected to have failed.

Retired county manager Merrett Stierheim is the dean of local government administrators, having guided Miami-Dade government through the tumultuous early 1980s, a time of violent civil disturbances and large-scale refugee influxes. He said the torrent of activity since the Surfside tower fell is not surprising and that if he were still in government he would have demanded immediately to know everything about the problem of unsafe structures.

“This thing is so horrendous, I’d want to know everything I could about the permits, the status and the age of all the buildings,” he said. “You couldn’t give me enough information. I would be extremely concerned. The assumption is that building inspections are accurate and timely and have been thoroughly reviewed by the city’s building official, who is a qualified professional.”

Forty-year recertifications, which are required in Miami-Dade and Broward, are to be conducted by licensed engineers and architects and include visual examinations, tests for structural deterioration and electrical system functionality. After the 40-year recertification, the procedure is required every 10 years after that.

The rules for recertification are written into the county code. The process is required of any property larger than 2,000 square feet—not just condos—and an occupancy load of 10 people or more, with the exception of single-family homes and townhouses.

A Miami Herald analysis of Miami-Dade County building records and commercial real estate listings found roughly 140 coastal condominium buildings six stories or higher that are more than 50 years old and another roughly 140 six-story coastal condominium buildings 35 to 49 years old.

The Herald asked 10 municipalities in the condo belt along or near the coast and the county to provide comprehensive lists of condos either up for structural integrity reviews or that were scheduled to undergo them over the past 10 years. Two quickly fulfilled the request. Others said they were working on it or provided a list of addresses rather than detailed logs. Some have not responded.

The two that responded with spreadsheets of buildings and their progress are currently in catch-up mode, scrambling to make sure all buildings in their jurisdiction are in compliance.

One of the two, Aventura, is firing off certified letters, imposing tight deadlines, threatening five-figure fines and warning that the power could be shut off to a building that doesn’t respond with dispatch.

Bay Harbour Islands, across the Intracoastal from Surfside, is the other municipality that provided a complete record. According to that document, five of the 12 buildings notified by Bay Harbor Islands officials via certified letter in March and April that they are due for their 40-year inspection did not respond to the notice. Two of the letters were returned unclaimed.

Out of the 12 buildings, only two had completed the recertification process as of June 28—one located at 9770 E. Harbor Dr. and the other at 1050 98th St. Although the process can take months or longer, some buildings require little upgrade and there nothing to prevent associations from getting started before receiving the letter. Another three buildings are in the midst of recertification or requested an extension.

Of the 14 buildings notified by Bay Harbor Islands officials on March 10, 2020 that they were due for recertification, nine had to be sent second notices on March 25, 2021. This past Wednesday, six of the nine were issued “notices of violation.” In the three other cases, certified letters were returned unclaimed.

In an email to the Herald, Bay Harbor Islands Town Manager Maria Lasday wrote “We are in the process of determining what review process will be implemented” in regards to how the town will keep track of recertifications in the future. Lasday declined to comment on the system currently in place.

Aventura has taken a more aggressive tack. In the days immediately following the collapse, the city began sending notices to buildings in need of 40- or 50-year recertifications, as well as “final notices” to buildings that had not previously responded, records shared with the Herald show.

Between June 25, the day after the collapse, and July 2, the city sent 46 “first notices” to buildings alerting them they are due or overdue for recertification. During that same period, the city sent five second notices and 15 final notices.

Aventura city officials did not respond to a request for comment.

“Final notices,” which can carry a violation fee as high as $10,500, are the last warning before the building is referred to the county’s Unsafe Structures Board.

“If the building owners just thumb their nose at the notification, the corresponding building official can issue a notice of violation that will say your building will be (posted) as unsafe,” said Jaime Gascon, director of board and code administration with the Miami-Dade County Regulatory and Economic Resources department.

The Unsafe Structure Board oversees all cities and municipalities in Miami-Dade County except in Miami and Miami Gardens, which have their own boards, Gascon said.

If a case goes before the Unsafe Structure Board, Gascon said the building’s representatives can ask for an extension to complete their recertification.

“The board will hear the case out,” Gascon said. “But the teeth in the order is that if something in the building is unsafe, it can result in a demolition order.”

Other cities and municipalities that have placed a stronger emphasis on recertification since the collapse include the City of Sunny Isles Beach, which says it has initiated a proactive inspection process for commercial and multi-family buildings erected prior to 1982. Out of the 59 properties that meet that criteria, 39 have received their recertification and the other 20 are in the process of inspection.

On July 1, Surfside announced that all owners of buildings 30 years and older and at least three stories in height must hire a structural engineer to begin assessing their properties in advance of their 40-year recertification. The notice also requires owners of buildings east of Collins Avenue—those closest to the ocean—to hire a geotechnical engineer to perform an analysis of the foundation and subsurface soils. Champlain Towers South was east of Collins.

Jorge M. Gonzalez, manager of Bal Harbour Village, has ordered the town’s building official to conduct a site visit to all 52 buildings that fit the criteria of 40-year recertifications, even if the structures are not old enough yet, to determine whether there are any immediate risks to life safety.

The building official will also issue a notice of required inspection with a 90-day deadline to buildings whose 40-year recertification are due.

After the Surfside collapse, Miami city government sent out hundreds of letters to owners and condo associations for buildings that are 40 years or older. On Thursday, the City Commission requested a full review of Miami’s building recertification process and called for a list of recommendations within 30 days on how to strengthen the process.

A group of 125 buildings at least six stories tall and of older vintage have been sent letters strongly urging owners to hire experienced structural engineers to look for “visible signs of distress.” Another batch of more than 900 buildings that are from three to five stories received similar letters.

The quality of those reviews may vary widely. Miami can only “strongly urge” owners to hire engineers who have designed or inspected at least three buildings of similar size because the city code doesn’t create stronger requirements..

“I recognize that there is a need in the industry to really raise the threshold of who should be performing these inspections,” said Asael Marrero, the Miami’s building director, in an interview.

“The code currently calls for a ‘competent architect or engineer,’” Marrero said. “So if you look at the definition of a competent architect or engineer, well, that could be someone that just graduated from school and got their license. That doesn’t mean that that individual may be qualified to do that kind of work.”

In other ways, Miami has been tightening up its oversight of potentially unsafe structures. In 2020, the commission approved a change that allowed city administrators to shut down buildings if they don’t obtain a 40-year recertification—but only after a process that includes going before the city’s unsafe structures panel.

The city’s capacity for enforcing this measure has increased significantly. Before this year, Miami’s unsafe structures division had only one inspector. Now there are 10—a change that preceded the Surfside collapse—and an inspection chief on staff. The unsafe structures panel is meeting twice monthly to handle cases, including one meeting focusing solely on 40-year recertifications. Those meetings began in February.

“Obviously it’s very unfortunate that we see this happening in Surfside, but we have not been silent about addressing this issue in the city of Miami,” Marrero told the Herald. “We have been very proactive in making sure we had a mechanism in place to deal with that—new inspectors, new administrative staff so we could double down on the number of hearings.”

North Bay Village Commissioner Rachel Streitfeld said there’s an important factor to consider when looking at why recertifications aren’t getting done. The necessary repairs can add up to millions of dollars, which are paid by unit owners through special assessments based on a unit’s square footage.

For example, an engineer had outlined a series of major improvements required at Champlain Towers South. The cost was pegged at close to $16 million. Divvied up, that could have resulted in individual bills starting at $70,000 or $80,000.

collapsed condo
Debris is seen after the managed demolition of the remaining part of Champlain Towers South complex in Surfside, Fla., on July 6, 2021. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

“We need to address the financing issue in older buildings where residents are living on fixed incomes,” Streitfeld said. “Special assessments can run as high as $10 million. As local governments, we need to use the resources that we have to support those associations that are looking at high repairs. I don’t think the process of fining these buildings that are late and letting those fees accrue is incentivizing.”

Condo association officials say communication between the boards and their local governments often breaks down. One head of a condo board, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the board had been working on the building’s 10-year recertification, which was due in 2019, but the repairs slowed in 2020 due to COVID.

The board did not know until recently that the structure was out of compliance because the city sent the final notice to the wrong address.

Another condo association member in a different building said the board had completed its 40-year recertification in 2009 but owners were unaware of the need to complete a 10-year inspection in 2019 until receiving a “final notice” this past March.

Gary Mars, an attorney at the Siegfried Rivera law firm who specializes in community associations and construction defect law, said part of the problem is that too much onus is placed on condo boards, which are often made up of volunteers with no experience in engineering or repairs.

“It’s a high burden to ask volunteer board members to maneuver through certain construction concerns and structural problems,” Mars said. “If an engineer sees a beam is impacted because the roof is failing, there should be a certain degree of notification required by an engineer to that municipality. That would invoke some kind of process that provides a time frame to get things done. The municipality has to be involved with these issues. It can’t linger with the board members.”

Said Merrett Stierheim, the former county manager: “Everyone is looking for a villain. But part of the problem is you have condo associations that defer maintenance many times to save money. That’s one of the shortfalls of condo management. This tragedy may promote legislation in the state and county ordinances to address condo boards.”

(Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown, McClatchy data and investigative reporter Ben Wieder, reporting intern Luis Joel Meendez González and data interns Karen Wang and Deena Sabry contributed to this report.)

©2021 Miami Herald. Visit at miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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