Condo buildings are in danger. So is all real estate. The disaster in Surfside, Florida, focused on condo flaws, but all forms of ownership have the potential to cause unpleasant surprises. After a condo tower collapsed in Surfside, Florida, last week, second guessing began almost immediately. Some residents accused the building’s condo association of acting too slowly to correct known structural defects identified in a 2018 engineering report. Recent news has emphasized differences between owners.

Condo buildings

As someone who has studied condos in Florida and across the United States, their history, architecture, politics, and social dynamics, I also wonder if the building’s divided ownership contributed to the June 24 catastrophe, in which at least 18 died. people. and more than 140 disappeared. Could a landlord respond better to the concerns of engineers and occupants than the 136 HOA?

Condos have long been big business and a way of life in southeast Florida, which by the 1970s had become the center of life in America. us According to census data, today the US One in five homeowners in cities and suburbs lives in a multi-family complex rather than a single-family home; In Miami and Fort Lauderdale, this ratio 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 that building,” a local told The Wall Street Journal. “People of South America, Cuban Jews, American Jews, American citizens.”

In most ways, the Surfside tower was no different from the thousands of other tall condo buildings in Florida. Meanwhile, they face many risks, particularly their proximity to the ocean at a time of rising sea levels, in the form of single-owner apartment buildings and other concrete and steel properties along the Florida coast. Various reports suggest that the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association acted correctly and proceeded systematically, despite considerable resistance, to figure out how to fix the problems identified by an engineer.


Researchers still have a lot to learn about the causes of the disaster. Condo format irregularities, including the need to raise $ 15 million for repairs through a “special appraisal” from the owners, may have delayed the building’s response to structural problems. Lack of ownership, common in many condo buildings, especially in metropolitan resorts and business centers, can make repairs even more difficult.

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And yet the collapse may have been caused by other yet to be identified factors that weren’t listed in the 2018 engineer’s report. “From what I’m seeing, [that report] didn’t sound like anything I would say, ‘Take out people, ‘”Norma Jean Mattei, an engineering professor at the University of New Orleans, told the Washington Post. “The decline played a role, but it was not the cause of this failure. There was something else to bring this building to the top.” In other words, Champlain Towers South may not have been affected by bad ownership or bad governance, but by bad condition and sadly the loss has been suffered.

Due to the disaster in Surfside, long-standing questions about condo-mania are resurfacing in Florida and elsewhere. Like other forms of shared housing, such as a cooperative, the condo occupies a dark place in American life. The majority of American home buyers have historically preferred single-family homes and have ranked other types of homes as the second best. Geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists have argued for decades that the condo system is fundamentally inexcusable, little more than a plan devised by developers to attract property buyers with hollow promises of pleasant spaces, luxury amenities, and community. .

Others viewed the condo system as an inevitable nuisance, concerned that a hobbyist group of homeowners might not be able to manage a building efficiently. However, individually owned apartments emerged in the 19th century in cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., for people who could afford a home but didn’t need it or were designed and built to separate them from work. Careful effort in the housing marketing class.

The builder of apartments for sale in the USA in the 1880s opted for a simpler system: the corporate titled “cooperative”, in which the association has full title to the property and individual ownership in many cases carries over permanently to $ 1 – One year “proprietary” leases. In some ways, he is a better model. Single title allows associations to more easily obtain business loans for repairs, while leases allow them to evict owners who become liabilities.

However, the association’s power, especially to control resale, made mortgage lenders wary. And in a nation deeply committed to unrestricted ownership, it also limited the appeal of owning an apartment. In the late 1950s, the mortgage industry, anticipating untapped demand, began promoting condos in Florida and then nationwide. As early as 1921, Congress questioned the entire premise of the apartments for sale and informed the owners of their viability.

Condo buildings are in danger

In 1974, an aggrieved owner, who testified before Congress, asked, “Can a union really work?” Lately, useless condo politics has been the subject of sitcoms on shows like Seinfeld. Since 2009, disputes between homeowners and homeowners associations have been broadcast in South Florida on an AM radio show called “Condo Craze & HOA” on Sunday mornings, hosted by attorney Eric M. Glazer – Judge Judy from Condominium Coast.

Behind much of the suspicion of the condominium system was the tension between private property rights and the obligations of the community. Between the 1880s and World War I, jointly owned buildings in the United States were mostly sponsored directly by future tenants (reflecting the recent Baugruppen wave in Berlin). In the 1920s, however, speculative developers dominated. To sell the apartment, she learned to emphasize a lifestyle, including ease of physical maintenance (“no grass to mow,” read various advertisements), while minimizing responsibilities.

But like any other property, owning an apartment carries its own burden, only less tangible than a lawn. No matter the system, ownership turns tenants, willing or not, into owners – members of an incorporation automatically become co-owners of a corporate body responsible for the commons. However, as almost everyone who has ever owned an apartment in a large building knows, the condo owner is the rare one who engages in this duty, and even more rare is the one who attends association meetings, and much less does he serve on the Board of Directors.

And yet the developers and sales agents quickly recognized the difference. Perfecting his marketing strategies, he began to encourage the hiring of buildings for “professional” management, leaving the associations with few direct responsibilities. Governance can still be a challenge. In co-ops in New York and DC, where unions generally select new buyers (apparently for financial security reasons), the fight broke out over whether Jews and later single women, blacks, and men can resell to men.

In recent decades, residents of condominium buildings have fought over everything from cosmetic improvements (redecorating hallways) to installing charging stations for electric vehicles. These controversies point to why some early critics believed that the condo would inevitably lead to major problems, including premature physical deterioration.

These predictions sometimes turn out to be true, but almost never in America does our belief in a stable and transparent real estate system outweigh our deep-seated opposition to public monitoring of private transactions. As a result, the regulation of condo-like arrangements in this country, even in free Florida, has been one of the strongest in the world, making American condo owners the envy of their counterparts in places as diverse as Australia. China and Israel.

People around the world who follow Surfside news are now aware of Miami-Dade County’s requirement that buildings undergo recertification by engineers or architects after 40 years. But since the 1970s, Florida has also introduced a host of other regulations to ensure the safe, equitable, and relatively efficient governance of co-owned apartments, and other states have followed suit in many ways.

When developers used lockout syndicates on management contracts at uncompetitive rates (as described in John D. McDonald’s 1977 disaster novel, Condominiums), keep ownership of common areas and return them to unions Keep prices low For sale (even at inflated rates) by renting or by consistently reducing monthly dues while maintaining control over the unions, until most of the units were sold, the state banned these practices. To enable more timely and profitable resolution of landlord-owner and union disputes, it established provisions for resolving disputes out of court.

None of this guarantees that when major repairs are needed, homeowners will be able to make decisions or raise funds quickly. And even if states insist that federations take into account the condo deal’s unique pitfalls, homeowners are still exposed to other risks, including, in some cases, the coastline amid climate change. There are uncertainties involved. Ultimately, the condo format could become a factor in the wave disaster, but any presumption of guilt can now provide false security to those with interests in other forms of real estate, and are unattractive, rare and, sometimes disastrous. The wonder that all types of property have property potential.


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