CBS News by Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Senate committee Tuesday backed a proposal that would make changes to a condominium-safety law passed last year after the deadly collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside.
The proposal (SB 154), which deals with issues such as inspections and condominium-association financial reserves, came as associations try to carry out the law passed during a May special legislative session — and grapple with increased costs for residents.
During Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Miami Gardens Democrat whose district includes Surfside, asked what would be done to “provide relief” to condominium owners who could be forced to pay more because of last year’s law.
“I hear you, and we have heard from folks throughout the state on that issue, on the question of will it be burdensome,” bill sponsor Jennifer Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said. “And I cannot sit here today and tell you that there is not an owner in the state of Florida who won’t see an increase because of this … effort on the part of the Legislature to make sure that folks that live in condos are safe.”
The Regulated Industries Committee voted unanimously to approve the bill, which, for example, would make changes in what are known as “milestone” inspections for condominium buildings three floors or higher.
Under last year’s law, inspections are required for buildings that have been occupied for 30 years — or 25 years if the buildings are within three miles of a coastline. After initial inspections, the buildings have to go through the process every 10 years.
The new bill would ease that somewhat, allowing buildings within three miles of the coastline to be inspected after they have been occupied for 30 years. It would allow local officials to require the inspections after 25 years of occupancy depending on “local circumstances, including environmental conditions such as proximity to salt water.”
Also, the bill 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.
“We don’t want to have a gotcha,” Bradley said.
A key issue in last year’s law (SB 4-D) dealt with condominium associations having adequate financial reserves to make needed repairs to buildings. In part, the law required what are known as “structural integrity reserve” studies to help determine how much money needs to be set aside.
Part of the focus on the issue stems from some associations in the past not placing enough money in reserves, which now could lead to residents facing hefty costs if buildings need major repairs. The studies are required to take into account a list of structural features of buildings, such as roofs, load-bearing walls and fire-protection systems.
Bradley said the bill includes changes such as removing floors from the list. Also, the bill proposes allowing the studies to “recommend that reserves do not need to be maintained for any item for which an estimate of useful life and an estimate of replacement cost or deferred maintenance expense cannot be determined” — a provision that Bradley said could apply to foundations.
The Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis approved last year’s law after 98 people died in the June 2021 collapse of the Surfside building. While the law was aimed at bolstering the safety of buildings, officials also said the collapse is having ramifications for condominium associations trying to buy property insurance.
Insurance lobbyist Lisa Miller, a former state deputy insurance commissioner, told the Senate committee that insurance companies “are looking at this bill.”
“The companies need to be able to see what’s in them (the buildings),” Miller said. “Before Champlain Towers, they really were insuring them based on the agent’s word or just data that wasn’t transparent.”