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Condominium Association Perspectives: Tragedy in Surfside Highlights Importance of Maintenance of Common Elements, Common Areas and Facilities

The tragic event surrounding the collapse of Champlain Towers South Condominium in Surfside, Florida has raised questions regarding maintenance of common elements, common areas and facilities maintained by community associations, and the importance of obtaining (and following) advice from professionals retained by the association, including engineers and licensed contractors.

Condominium associations have an obligation to maintain the common elements of the condominium property. The common elements typically include the condominium property located outside of the unit, including but not limited to structural foundations, walkways, floor slabs, exterior walls, and the roof system. Additionally, community associations other than condominiums may also have maintenance obligations for common areas and buildings (including residences), as set forth in the association’s governing documents. The Board of Directors of associations with such maintenance responsibilities is tasked with overseeing the maintenance and repair of such property, and failure to do so may result in damage to the common elements or common property, individual units and homes, and in some extreme and unfortunate cases, can result in personal injury or death.

As events unfold in Surfside, information has been released indicating that the board for the condominium association may have been provided with information detailing dangerous issues with the buildings and condominium facilities. At the heart of future discussion will be whether the board fulfilled its obligations to undertake maintenance and properly consider the engineer’s report as to problems with the community.

As the information surrounding the tragic collapse of the condominium tower in Surfside continues to develop, there are lessons to be gleaned. One is to understand the maintenance obligations of the association and the importance of obtaining advice from licensed professionals engaged by the association to assist with identifying areas of concern. Also, associations should carefully consider the potential consequences of waiving reserve funding for deferred maintenance and replacement of common elements and facilities or otherwise not properly and fully funding them. While the short-term savings to unit owners associated with an artificial reduction in assessments may seem desirable to some, the long-term effect is often that the association does not have sufficient funds available to perform necessary maintenance and repairs when required. Then, when the need for repairs or replacements arises, unit owners often oppose the assessment increase or special assessment necessary to perform them, which can lead to litigation and difficulties with collecting the funds necessary to perform the required repairs. Further, as necessary repairs are delayed, the scope and expense of the required repair project often increases, which exacerbates the problem associated with funding the repairs and leads to a greater, more immediate financial impact on the owners than if adequate funds have been collected over a period of years through adequately funding reserves. Further, while we understand that increasing assessments or levying special assessments is often politically unpopular, Board members should understand that sometimes the best decision is not politically popular and should be prepared to make difficult, though necessary decisions as leaders of their communities. Additionally, while the 40-year “recertification” of the condominium in Surfside was due to a requirement in Miami-Dade County as a matter of local government law, associations should discuss whether their local City or County government establishes any legal requirement for period building inspection or maintenance. Even without such a requirement from local government, associations are strongly encouraged to consider whether periodic inspections of buildings should be conducted, and to otherwise have (and follow) a thorough maintenance plan for the buildings and areas maintained by the association.