Updates on dangerous high-rise condo projects

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I have recommended previously that all South Carolina dirt lawyers subscribe to the DIRT listserv run by Professor Dale Whitman of the University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School. I emphasize that recommendation today and have two updates from that service to share with you. Both updates relate to the collapsed Surfside project in south Florida.

First, a 50-unit condominium building in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Horizon West, has been ordered to be demolished by the Waukesha City Council. Professor Whitman reports that the building’s steel structure has been compromised by water infiltration, much like the Surfside project, and is considered a risk for collapsing.

The residents don’t have the funds to pay for the demolition, and the insurance company is taking the position that the building should be repaired, not demolished. The cost of the demolition has skyrocketed because of the presence of asbestos.

The units were valued at $90,000 to $140,000 according to Zillow, prior to the discovery of the defects. During the current high-priced housing market, it is not likely that the property owners will be able to replace their housing even if they receive their full replacement costs from insurance. It is a very sad situation, but, of course, not as sad as an actual collapse resulting in the loss of lives.

Second, Florida’s legislature has passed a law that requires regular building inspections and requires homeowners’ associations to maintain reserves. The act was unanimously passed by both houses, and Governor DeSantis signed the bill into law on May 26th.

Under the new law, inspections are required when a condominium building reaches 30 years of age and every ten years thereafter. For buildings within three miles of the coast, the first inspection is required at 25 years of age.

In addition, mandatory structural integrity reserve studies are required every ten years under the new law, and reserves are required to be maintained based on the studies. The power of the HOA to waive reserves was removed, effective December 31, 2024.

This legislation is encouraging and should be considered in South Carolina, particularly because of the existence of our numerous high-rise coastal condominium projects.

The only downside I see about such legislation is that it will make condominium living more expensive and may price some retirees and lower-income individuals out of the market entirely. But, logically, the cost of maintenance should be factored into every residential property purchase. The ability of an owners’ association to waive reserves and thereby kick the maintenance can down the road is a dangerous proposition.

** Please note that the new inspection and reserve Florida legislation applies only to condominium and cooperative buildings of 3 stories and higher above ground. See more details from Florida attorney, Michael Gefland.

“Collapse” podcast focuses on legal issues of aging condominiums

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This blog has previously discussed the June 24, 2021 collapse of the 136-unit Champlain Towers South  project in Surfside, Florida and Fannie Mae’s response by issuing Lender Letter (LL-2021-14) which directs lenders to gather information from owners’ associations about potential unsafe conditions.

South Carolina has many aging condominium projects, particularly along our coast. And we have an earthquake fault line to consider. Do our local homeowners’ association boards face expensive repair and reserve dangers like those in Florida? Should condominium purchasers consider the financial impact of possible major assessments to address delayed repairs? Should legislation be proposed to address these issues?

My husband and I have considered downsizing to a condominium in Columbia, but after spending some time with this repair and reserve issue, I would have to spend extensive time with the financials of any project that might interest us. And the high-rise projects at the coast face more difficult repair issues than those in the midlands because of salt, sand, water, and wind.

I’d like to recommend a podcast episode to lawyers who may be interested in this topic. And I believe all dirt lawyers who represent owners’ associations and even condominium purchasers should be aware of the legal and financial concerns that were clearly brought to the surface by this tragedy.

The podcast is entitled “Collapse: Disaster in Surfside” produced by Treefort Media and the Miami Herald. The podcast series discusses the collapse, the personal experiences of escape and failure to escape, the media coverage, the legal maneuvers, the insurance issues, and many other matters. The heart wrenching conflict between the victims who lost family members and those who lost their homes was difficult to absorb. I won’t ask you to listen to all of that.

But Episode 8 summarizes the legal and financial issues, and I highly recommend that episode.

Our horizontal property regime legislation is deficient at best. Reserves for repairs are discussed in our  HPR legislation but not required.

Once these huge, often high-rise projects are completed, there is no legislative future inspection requirement. The county in South Florida where Champlain Towers was located has a requirement to inspect tower projects after forty years. Forty years is a long time! Champlain Towers’ forty-year inspection had found the potential problems, but there were no “teeth” requiring the repairs to be made. The property owners of Champlain Towers were aware of the need for extensive repairs, but they continued to kick the can down the road to avoid the expense.

After the collapse, Florida’s legislature considered an act which would have required reserves and inspections, but the effort failed because of the fear of chilling South Florida’s development frenzy. My guess is that South Carolina would face a similar roadblock.

Some condominium projects have served as affordable housing in certain geographic locations and as affordable second homes and rentals in resort areas. The podcast suggests that tacking on the annual cost of reasonable reserves may threaten this affordability. Think about elderly individuals who live in their dream coastal condominium. Taken to a logical conclusion, these projects, properly run, may become available only to the wealthiest among us.