'Every Step Is A Nightmare': Miami Beach Condo Board Makes Plea For Help Maintaining Its Property
Since the condo collapse in Surfside, that has left at least 60 dead and scores still unaccounted for, Katja Esson has been obsessively reading the drip-drip of news reports about what led up to the collapse.
The alarming inspection reports, communication problems with the town of Surfside, the bickering on the condo board that delayed decision-making, and the pushback from residents to cough up the money for needed — an exceedingly expensive — repairs.
“It all feels very familiar,” said Esson. “Our condo is much, much smaller, but we have the same issues basically.”
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Esson is on the condo board at the Shore Apartments building in the Normandy Isles neighborhood of Miami Beach, about a mile from the Surfside collapse. The building now finds itself in the crosshairs of a crackdown on properties that have past-due inspections and recertifications.
The pastel pink, three-story condo building is historically protected and it sits right on the water. It was designed by the architect Robert Swartburg and built in 1948. Swartburg is the same architect who designed the Delano Hotel, the Marseilles Hotel and the Bass Museum on South Beach and the Vagabond Hotel in Miami’s Upper Eastside.
The historic condo building is more than a year behind on its recertification — the same process Champlain Towers South was just beginning when the collapse happened. Buildings need to complete recertification once they reach 40 years old in Miami-Dade and Broward, and once every 10 years from there on out.
“I would really say for like 20 years, nothing was done in this building. And now we're facing everything,” said Esson. “From the roof to the structure, to the plumbing, to the electricity, everything at once. And here we are, laymen and women who need to now become specialists about electricity, about elevators, about roofing and, you know, TPO. You know, what the hell is TPO?”
TPO, short for thermoplastic polyolefin, is a new waterproof roofing technology that has become popular with newer buildings.
The lagging recertification process for the Shore Apartments building is emblematic of the nature of condo boards that are increasingly coming under scrutiny in the wake of the Surfside collapse. Most unpaid, volunteer condo board members are not engineers or architects. Many have no experience with building and permitting, and yet they are charged with keeping fellow residents safe and maneuvering through a strangling government bureaucracy in order to do so.
Trying to maintain the building has not been easy, said Esson. In fact, it has been very much the opposite.
“Every step is a nightmare,” she said.
For instance, she points to the process of trying to get the building's dock repaired. The dock was destroyed during Hurricane Irma in 2017, and the repairs were only recently completed.
“That was not just construction, that was because there were no records of our dock. So we had to go and get a new lease,” she explained. “It took a year just to get the underwater lease, to be allowed to do the dock and then to build the dock. There were like five people working on it and we kept sending paperwork to one and then they agreed to the step that we did and we sent the next step, and the second person didn’t agree with what the first person did. And so it went on and on and on and on.”
Esson continued: “There is some kind of not-efficient system that I cannot put my finger on, with paperwork and plans and what engineers send to the city. It just somehow seems that there is not a working pipeline [for] how things are processed.”
Permit records show concrete structural work was done on the building starting last June, but more work still needs to be done before the recertification is complete, particularly on the aging electrical system, said Esson.
Immediately after the Surfside collapse, the city of Miami Beach posted a notice that the building had 21 days to get done with the recertification process.
“I don't think it's enough time,” said Ekaterina Juskowski, a fellow condo board member. “Everything is taking a lot of time in the current construction market. All the contractors are busy and the quotes are delivered with a delay.”
She pointed to the shortage of construction workers and increased rates for construction materials brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic as extra headaches that have been thrown into the mix for condo boards at the moment. The increased stress on resources and labor has pushed prices for work up, and created long delays in bringing projects to completion.
If the building does not submit an engineering report by July 19, declaring that the building is safe for occupancy, the city of Miami Beach will start the process of potentially deeming the building an unsafe structure, said Melissa Berthier, a spokesperson for the city.
That could lead to fines for the building, or potentially to an evacuation of residents.
'They Should Be Helped'
Juskowski joined the condo board after buying an apartment in the building in January 2020. She is a Miami history enthusiast and was optimistic about the prospects of living in, updating and preserving the historic Shore Apartments property.
But now, that enthusiasm has turned to hair-pulling frustration. Juskowski is an artist, photographer and runs the nonprofit Miami Girls Foundation. She described unpaid hours of every day being dedicated to the inner workings of how to keep the building safe and in good conditions, and to figuring out how to navigate through the internal politics of the building in addition to the bureaucracy of the city.
“I dream of the day when I can just resign from the board and never think about it again,” she said. “For now I’m volunteering and I feel that it’s needed. It’s kind of the attitude: ‘If not me then who?’”
Going into her role as a board member, Juskowski knew that the recertification was the main thing the board had to tackle.
Now as an insider looking out, she sees deep issues preventing non-expert condo boards from streamlining the recertification and repair process. Local governments in South Florida are historically all about development. Bringing new money in, building new high-rise condos, the eternal real estate boom that has been the very foundation of modern South Florida.
Juskowski recognizes that, but said the people who actually live here often feel like they’ve been put on the back burner.
“It is this never ending story of Miami, of fast money and beautiful women and fun,” she said. “It's a constant flipping and flipping and flipping. New people, bringing more people and flipping. And those people who want to preserve the buildings like us and want to preserve Miami history, they should be helped by the government and a local government, local communities, I don't even know who — who should help. But those efforts should be aided and supervised in some way where it's not a struggle.”
Government Oversight, Or A Lack Thereof
The role of the government, at different levels, in providing oversight and helping condo associations through the labyrinth of building upkeep is also coming under scrutiny in the wake of the Surfside collapse.
Florida has very lenient laws when it comes to requiring condo associations to keep reserves — communal savings for needed repairs. Condo residents in Florida can vote not to set that money aside, in order to keep their monthly association fees lower.
Some other states, like New York and Illinois, do require condo associations to keep reserves in the bag for needed repairs.
Without reserves, expensive repairs often require large payments that come all at once, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars per unit, in something called a “special assessment.” Those assessments can create tricky politics between neighbors in the building, often resulting in condo boards kicking the can down the road for those hard, expensive decisions.
From the emerging reports about what took place at Champlain Towers South before the condo collapse, this dynamic appears to have been a contributing factor.
The entire budget for the state agency that provides oversight to condo boards and associations — the Division of Condominiums, Timeshares and Mobile Homes — is about $7.5 million. At the same time, there are an estimated 4.5 million condo units in the state of Florida.
That comes down to an estimated $1.66 per unit per year for state oversight — and that pot of money is grouped together with oversight of timeshares and mobile homes.
“It's ridiculous, and I've said it since the first day that I got elected. It's ridiculous,” said Democratic State Sen. Jason Pizzo, whose district includes the condo-heavy municipalities of Miami Beach and Surfside. “It's basically something where Florida has just for so long bent over backwards to incentivize development and basically to to be completely subservient to, you know, sort of go it alone, property rights, as opposed to — I'm not a huge fan of overregulation, but we're talking about life safety issues.”
Pizzo said the little money that is put into the account for state oversight of condo units is “raided” every year by the Florida Legislature to spend on other projects. He wants that to stop, and also to put more money into the pot in the first place.
The state senator has also proposed creating special coastal zones that require more frequent inspections and recertifications. No legislation has been filed yet, and the state legislature does not meet again until January 2022.
Other reforms being floated after the tragedy in Surfside include giving condo boards government-backed low interest loans to do repairs when they are needed, making inspections more frequent or assigning municipal liaisons to work through the red tape of local government with condo boards and owners.
Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava has promised immediate reforms will take place once officials have a better understanding of what caused the Surfside collapse. Gov. Ron DeSantis has shown a less committal attitude to any change of state law, pointing to structural issues the lead back to the initial construction of the property.
At the end of the day, condo boards do have existing legal obligations under state law.
“If you know of something that is a problem that could be a safety concern, you have to address it,” said Daniel Lustig, a condo association attorney at Pike and Lustig in Miami.
'Would I Have Understood The Warnings?'
That’s the very reality that is troubling for Esson at the Shore Apartments in Miami Beach. She stressed that the condo boards don’t always know what they’re doing. They are just winging it, trying to figure it out. And they need help, she said.
Especially after the tragedy at Champlain Towers South in Surfside. Esson sees uncomfortable parallels between her own building and what happened in that tower — with difficulties getting on the same page with city officials and the revelations that difficult decisions in that tower were debated and disputed by the board and condo owners for years on end, leading right up to the tragedy.
“If you’re on a board now here in Miami you can’t help but ask yourself — wow — if I would have been on that board, what would I have done different? Would I have understood the warnings correctly? Would I have known what the engineer, what they’re telling me? Would I have been able to push quickly enough?” she said. “But you know our experience here, things go so slow. The permitting process, the inspection process. Everything is so slow, that I can understand why things took so long.”
“So there’s something wrong, for me, in this system,” she said.
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