What Lessons Will Condominium Associations Learn from The Surfside Disaster?

By Savannah Grayson

The Surfside condo collapse has proven to be one of the most tragic accidents we’ve seen in the U.S. in years. Rescue attempts have evolved into a recovery effort, and at the time of this writing, CNN has marked the death toll at 97 (though sadly that number may rise). And at this point, there are still far more questions than answers regarding what exactly happened, why it happened, and where we go from here.

As those questions continue to mount, an inevitable “blame game” is developing. It may or may not be helpful to think of things this way, and we aren’t seeking to identify a source of blame here. What is helpful, however, is figuring out which if any contributing factors to the disaster might have been avoidable, and what condominium owners, boards of directors, and community association managers might be able to do to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll continue to learn more about the state of the Champlain Towers before the collapse. Experts will study the event from all angles, and the hope is that clear reasons — and thus potential solutions — will be determined. In the meantime, though, there are already important lessons for condo associations to draw from what we already know.

More Thorough Review Processes

The most troubling information to emerge thus far concerning potential reasons for the collapse is that there were repeated warnings about the structural integrity of the building. NPR’s coverage of these warnings indicates that “repeated warnings” and escalating concerns never led to thorough reviews. Additionally, and disconcertingly, a mandated recertification process marking the 40-year mark after construction “went very well,” and addressed “all main concerns” without catching any structural problems. These are confusing reports, but above all else, they indicate the value of a more thorough review process. As obvious as it may sound now to say so, condominium associations should devote more care and attention to warnings and concerns regarding structural integrity and should conduct thorough, in-depth reviews both when the need arises and at general, periodic intervals.

Revamped Accounting & Budgeting

One issue that might prevent these Community associations from being more thorough in their reviews is a lack of available funds. Because of this concern, another lesson to draw from the catastrophe is that condominium associations can benefit from revamping their accounting and budgeting efforts to present a realistic budget to address vital needs. In this regard, condominium associations need only tap into a rapidly expanding industry of accounting professionals and collection specialists that has sprouted largely from online educational opportunities (webinars) and established community association management companies.

With accounting careers growing more valuable, lots of working adults have sought higher education through internet-based institutions and joined the growing field. As a result, Maryville University’s online bachelors in accounting write-up now lists jobs like budget analyst, financial advisor, and financial manager among the most appealing and fastest-growing business jobs. This is all to say that professional assistance is ready and waiting for those condo associations that do decide to put more effort into accounting and budgeting. Educated analysts and managers in this field will be able to move things toward a state in which there’s more money for reviews and maintenance. This can only be made possible if the boards of directors craft realistic budgets that address the needs of the condominium and not the budgets of the owners.

Risk Assessment

One detail from early investigations that generated quite a bit of attention is that the building was known to be “sinking.” An assessment from a professor at Florida International University revealed just last year that between 1993 and 1999 the condo building had been sinking at a rate of two millimeters a year. This rate was unusual by comparison to neighboring buildings. However, because nearby Miami Beach properties built on wetlands were sinking more quickly, those reading the numbers determined that they weren’t necessarily anything to worry about. Now, to be clear we do not know if this “sinking” contributed to the tragedy. Nevertheless, the fact that it was dismissed indicates a greater need for responsible condominium associations to practice thorough risk assessment. Anything of his nature that is even potentially out of the ordinary needs to be evaluated and assessed for risk.

General Data Collection

On top of all the above, condominium associations should also take a fresh look at the significance of data and the need for proper collection, sorting, and analysis. The notion of collecting useful data points and using them to improve management and develop strategy needs to expand beyond the reserve study to apply to building maintenance as well as community management in general. All the suggestions and processes above — structural reviews, budgeting decisions, and risk assessment — produce data. By keeping all of it together and organized, leadership in condominium associations can increase the likelihood of spotting potential problems and solutions in advance.

The situation in Surfside is fluid. We’re going to learn more about what exactly happened here, and with some grim luck, that knowledge will point toward ways of preventing similar tragedies. Already though, the points and lessons above should be considered by everyone in condominium management or leadership positions.

Resources for Communities

The Community Association Research Foundation explores the aging infrastructure issue in new report

CAI has prepared a collection of resources for community association members concerned about the safety of their own homes in light of this tragedy. This includes a list of questions condo owners can ask of the board, as well as resources for board members on condo building safety.

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