Florida lawmakers aim to ease condo confusion, but money questions remain

Mary Ellen Klas 

TALLAHASSEE — As residents of condominiums across Florida struggle to adapt to a sweeping new law that increases building inspections and maintenance costs, Florida legislators have agreed to a series of changes aimed at ending confusion — but not the financial pain.

This bill is an effort to “provide more clarity, flexibility and transparency,” said Sen. Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the sponsor of SB 154, which passed unanimously on Wednesday. The measure is a response to last year’s law that created the first statewide inspection program for aging condos in response to the partial collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside in June 2021 that killed 98 people.

Last year’s legislation “went on in a rather blunt fashion,” Bradley said Wednesday, leaving many issues unresolved. She and others spent the summer conducting town hall meetings around the state to hear concerns from condo residents.

“We had people that were confused. They were angry, and they wanted answers,” she told the Senate. “We now have a bill that we can be proud of with a lot of input from a lot of people.”

Last year, legislators passed SB 4-D requiring condos that are three stories or higher to conduct what are known as “structural integrity reserve studies,” which call for an architect or engineer to analyze a building and take into account the need for repairs to structural features of buildings, such as roofs, load-bearing walls and fire-protection systems. The reserve study must determine how much money must be set aside to complete the repairs.

Because so many Florida condominium associations have routinely deferred maintenance to keep the cost of living in them down, the price of making needed repairs has many advocates warning that many condo residents could be priced out of their homes.

The impact, Bradley told the Senate, will depend on how much money each condominium association has already set aside.

“If they had been waiting every year, and there are insufficient reserves for the structural components of the building to ensure life safety, there may be a period of catch-up,” she said.

Wait until next year for a financial solution

Finding a fix to assist with the financing of the repairs is something for legislators to tackle next year, said Rep. Vicki Lopez, a Coral Gables Republican who negotiated the condo bill with Bradley for the House.

“Today, we are trying to clarify a lot of those provisions, so that people have a better understanding of what it was that we meant,” she said Tuesday as she was filing amendments to match the Senate bill.

“I do think next year we have to address the financial implications of this,” she said.

Under the current law, any building with a certificate of occupancy issued before July 1, 1992, is subject to a “phase one” inspection. If any “substantial structural deterioration” is discovered, another inspection is required and if repairs are needed, they must be paid for by condominium homeowners’ associations.

The proposals attempt to streamline last year’s law, allowing buildings within three miles of the coastline to be inspected after they have been occupied for 30 years, instead of 25 years. After the initial “milestone” inspections, buildings would have to go through inspections every 10 years.

Not enough qualified inspectors

Since the law was passed last year, condo associations have complained of a shortage of people available to conduct the milestone inspections. The new bill allows the inspection to be done by a team of design professionals with an engineer or architect acting as a registered design professional in charge.

The new bill extends the deadline for the completion of the structural integrity reserve study to Jan. 1, 2025, and requires that money set aside for the repairs not be used for another purpose.

This year’s proposals also give local officials more oversight authority and more flexibility. For example, they allow local officials to require a building to be inspected after 25 years because of environmental conditions such as proximity to salt water.

The new bills also would allow local officials to extend inspection deadlines if building owners have entered into contracts with architects or engineers but the inspections cannot be finished in time.

The bill removes the requirement that condo owners covered by Citizens Property Insurance obtain flood insurance.

And this year’s bill includes several clarifications, such as stating that the milestone inspection program applies only to residential condominiums and mixed-use buildings, and that all unit owners are responsible for financing any needed repairs.

Lopez acknowledged that many condo owners were not aware that their boards were waiving the option of assessing fees to pay for structural improvements.

“They are facing costs that they cannot afford, and so many of them, in order to keep their homes, will have to go into debt, will have to borrow it,” she said. “I’m worried about that.”

Lopez said that she and Bradley hope to work on financing options for legislators to consider next year that would help people afford the increased costs, such as creating a “glide path” for paying assessments.

Lopez’s bill, HB 1395, is expected to be heard in the House Commerce Committee on Monday, and both will be amended to be virtually the same.

Lopez described last year’s legislation, which was wedged into a special session after efforts to reach agreement in the regular session fell apart, as “throw something together to make sure that something is done, and then come back and really study it.”

Because it has such sweeping implications and costs, Lopez predicted, “there will be more.”

For example, she said she would like to see a requirement that condo association board members take a course so that they understand how to address issues before them.

Published On: April 13th, 2023

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