Just how safe are the beach-side condos in Palm Beach County and along the Treasure Coast? The CBS 12 News I-Team has been looking at that issue since the Surfside highrise collapse in June.
Hundreds of buildings built in the 1980s and older dot our coastline and it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to repair them and keep the people who live inside safe.
Boca Raton city leaders were the first in Florida to pass tough new inspection rules.
In Boca, buildings 30 years old or older will be thoroughly inspected, the first of those inspections could begin in October.
The situation is creating a lot of uncertainty for local condo owners.
"I am concerned and I hate to say it this way, but I think Surfside did us a favor," said Larry Licht, a successful marketing executive, Larry retired and made his winter home, his permanent residence, a Boca Raton condo on the 7th floor.
The beach is across the street. Larry's boat, just downstairs.
But when the Champlain Towers South in Surfside fell - killing 98 people- Larry knew condo living was about to change.
"Good enough is never good enough. We haven’t inspected as thorough as we should," Licht said. "The problem in Surfside wasn’t that they didn’t do an inspection...they did do an inspection. And then they did nothing. That’s a sin."
Larry’s highrise is one of six in his complex and there are more than 240 others in Boca- now preparing for rigorous re-certification inspections.
Boca Raton's Mayor Scott Singer and the City Council didn’t want to wait for the state or county to act after the Surfside disaster, so they passed an ordinance requiring 30-year-old buildings to get a check-up. Older ones too. And every 10 years after that, another inspection.
"I grew up in a condo East of A1A, built in the same year as the Champlain Towers South, so obviously, when you contemplate that a building of the same age could collapse... it strikes closer to home," Singer said.
The investigation into exactly what caused the Surfside collapse is ongoing- but the I Team reported extensively on a 2018 field survey report by Morabito Consulting. In it, engineers wrote that corrosion was taking a structural toll.
At the time, the estimate to fix structural problems at Champlain Towers South was at least $15 million, but the condo association only had $700,000 in reserves.
To raise the rest of the money, the board would have had to impose what’s called a “special assessment.” Owners are required to pay thousands of dollars each to pay for repairs, but in Florida, condo owners can overrule condo associations- if they get enough votes.
In-fighting among owners and their elected board members is common in condo life.
Talk of 6 or 7 figure special assessments – means tension, anger, and fear.
Boca Raton’s new ordinance could kick off a wave of such conflicts. If the city finds a repair is absolutely necessary, but condo owners want a second opinion and find an expert who says there’s no imminent danger, what then?
City fines of up to $500 a day could be imposed.
"If any problems are identified, staff will review them and give the building 30 days to come up with an action plan to remedy them, the building can ask to extend that if more time is needed, but yes, the whole point of recertification is to make sure buildings are safe," Mayor Singer said.
The mayor acknowledges this is likely to be expensive for some but says there’s no way around making sure residents are safe in their homes.
A recent national study looked at how much money condo associations have in reserve.
The research found a third maintain “weak” cash reserves – likely not enough to cover major improvements or repairs.
The I-Team has learned several condo associations in Boca are already in talks with banks anticipating repairs they’ll be required to make are going to be pricey.
"They’re going to need [money], some of them are going to need it," said Emily Gentile, President of the Beach Condo Association of Boca Raton and Highland Beach. She’s putting together a series of workshops to help condo boards get ready for what’s coming.
"I'm bringing in on another panel, some people that can help with financing, some banking institutions that do loans for large construction projects," Gentile said.
Gentile is also assembling a list of contractors that can do the necessary work. She says the more prepared condo boards are - the easier it will be for them to comply.
"That was a very shocking situation in Surfside, to me, it was like a 9/11 or Hurricane Andrew all over again, and we knew that we had to do something," Gentile said.
"If there’s a structural problem, I want to know, and then I want to do something about it," Larry Licht said.
At the Champlain Towers South site- investigators are looking at several problem spots, mainly the pool deck and pillars located in the parking garage.
Many of the condos in Boca Raton and highland beach have similar designs.
"This was not hidden from anyone’s eyes, but the overall severity of when something catastrophic could occur is a black-box to anyone," Ben Messerschmidt told the I-Team.
In West Palm Beach, inside the office of Epic Forensic Engineers, Messerschmidt talked with us about corrosion and he says buildings from the 80s, are more vulnerable to it because of the makeup of concrete used at the time and concrete technology.
"It’s a harsh environment as dictated by the Florida building code given its proximity to the seawater... buildings on the water, along that whole A1A strip, and along the barrier island will perform differently than a building that you’d have, say, in Orlando," Messerschmidt said.
In the 2018 field survey report, engineers found standing water caused the water-proofing around the pool deck to fail because the area was flat, not sloped, so water could not drain away.
Messerschmidt thinks code revisions about condo pool decks are coming. And he says the more new codes and rules officials write, the harder it will be for boards in older buildings to keep up. Some might even have to sell.
"And they’re faced with a @25 million repair bill, it may lead to opportunities for developers to go ahead and bulk buy each individual homeowner, buy them out, and level, and re-build. It's always been a developers market here in Florida and I don’t expect that tune to change anytime soon."
Larry Licht tells the I-Team his condo board will meet this month to discuss what inspectors might find and how much money they have in reserve to deal with it.
"The sooner we get on with it, the better, and if they had had that attitude, they would not have had the problem [in Surfside]."
Joan Johnson lives on the fourth floor of a condo building that’s outside of the city limits of Boca, but she and her neighbors in Century Village have a hunch that Palm Beach County‘s Commission could soon adopt the City of Boca’s ordinance- take what they’ve done and make it a law for the unincorporated parts of our area.
Joan is on a fixed income, she has to be careful with her money. If Century Village is required to make repairs and be re-inspected every 10 years, she worries about her association dues going through the roof.
"Some of the associations have already determined they don't have the money," Johnson said. "I depend on a certain amount each month, and if I end up with a special assessment, I could handle that for a while, but long term, later on down the line, that could be tricky."
The I-Team will continue to follow what the city of Boca is doing and we will report on any developments if other elected officials are about to pass new condo inspection laws.