It is June 24, 2021. Eighteen months into nonstop pandemic headlines, nothing fazes me anymore. “Virus’ ‘Unrelenting’ Spread Raises Alarm,” says the Houston Chronicle. No bells ring in my ear. The words have lost their punch. The New York Times claims, “An Unpredictable Pandemic Takes a Terrible Toll.” I’ve learned to live with that. NPR reports, “Life expectancy in the U.S. continues to drop, driven by COVID-19.” Filed under “What, me worry?” I’ve adopted a Zen attitude of letting go of what I can’t control. I am immune from bad news.
Except I’m not. I open my iPhone one morning and read “Partial Building Collapse Near Miami.” Immediately, there’s a pit in my stomach. Sometime after midnight, sporadic tremors vibrating through a 12-story structure groaned, popped, then coalesced into a massive implosion. Half a residential block fell in seconds. The scene resembles a missile strike: shredded walls, twisted concrete, spaghetti rebar. At least one person is known dead. A state of emergency is declared.
This makes no sense. We’re not at war. What happened? My head races through possibilities as I swipe for details.
Oh my god, more than a hundred people are missing. The cause has not been identified. The architect in me wants to cry.
I find another article. Champlain Towers South was 40 years old. OK—that’s about when tall buildings start needing serious renovation. Anecdotally, the average life expectancy of a high-rise in the U.S. without a major retrofit is 50–60 years. At some point, it’s either fix it up or tear it down. It would be rare, but a rusty gas line buttoned up in a mechanical room could leak and cause a major explosion. Or maybe a festering foundation problem was the trigger. Whatever, there would have been telltale signs. Why wasn’t Champlain Towers South’s landlord on top of this? I swipe again.
Fuck. It’s not an apartment building, it’s a condominium. There is no landlord.
I put down the phone. The condo board member in me wants to puke. Déjà vu tells me everything I need to know about the disaster. I feel dizzy.
My head spins back to November 13, 2018. I’ve just been elected to the condominium association board where I live, a 16-story midcentury modern once known as the city’s “grand dame.” I had served on the board 14 years ago, at various times as secretary, treasurer, vice president, and president. I thought I’d fulfilled my civic obligations in 2004, but something shook me out of retirement.
My wife and I moved into the building in 1990, when the tower was 32 years old. We weren’t much older. Madame Condo, my wife, and I grew from 30-somethings into old-timers together. The three of us needed similar kinds of financial planning to make it through old age. Wife and I hired a certified financial planner. Madame Condo had reserve studies prepared by professional engineers. During my hiatus from the board, I’d occasionally read those reports. After perusing the 2018 reserve study, I decided to run again.
That memory haunts me as I think about what felled Champlain Towers South. Knowing what I know, I’m worried sick. Not so the public. They’ve moved from shock to denial. Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett reflects national disbelief when he tells reporters, “Buildings like this don’t fall down in America.”
Except they do. Between 1971 and 2019, five multistory U.S. buildings pancaked into oblivion, taking 60 lives. In 1981, the disintegration of pedestrian walkways inside Kansas City’s Hyatt Regency Hotel lobby killed 114. After previous building failures, design firms and construction companies got sued. Industry practices changed. The Florida collapse is not unique in America. What’s special here is the larger issue going unaddressed. In previous collapses, people who did something wrong were held responsible. Here, those responsible will not be punished.
A day after the Champlain Towers South tragedy, conspiracy theorists claim terrorism. I know better. So does the media, which focuses on roofing repairs. Next comes reports of pool deck waterproofing issues, concrete spalls, and cracks. As time passes, ground subsidence and vibration from nearby construction are mentioned. The search for bogeys goes on, but my radar has zeroed in on an elephant in the room.
It takes a month to disentangle almost 100 bodies from Champlain Towers South’s debris. It takes longer to identify the retired couples, widows and widowers, middle-aged parents with children, newlyweds, and students interned under rubble.
After denial comes anger. As the reality of Surfside sets in, the public demands answers. Because Champlain’s original developer, architect, structural engineer, and construction company are long gone, experts sift through drawings and detritus for clues. As of this writing, they are still looking; the official investigation won’t wrap until 2024.
My sleuthing ends on June 26, 2021, two days after the disaster. The Miami Herald reports an engineering study had warned Champlain’s board of “major structural damage” years before the collapse. Morabito Consultants had advised “timely” repairs and estimated $9 million for remedial work. Costs later grew to $15 million. Unfortunately, Champlain Towers South had less than a million in the bank. Homeowners would have to dig deep to make up the difference.
Rebellion. Owners protested; board directors argued; heated debates pitted neighbor against neighbor. “Complaining Or Shouting At Each Other Doesn’t Work!” read one Powerpoint slide presented during a board meeting. “We should have started saving at least five years ago,” said another. The board’s president admitted to residents, “A lot of this work could have been done or planned for in years gone by. But this is where we are now.” As anger flared, Champlain board’s treasurer quit, saying, “I am finished. I cannot fight. They don’t hear me. They don’t listen to me.”
Meager savings made getting a bank loan difficult. Eventually, though, the board borrowed $12 million, to be paid back through a massive special assessment. One-bedroom owners were asked for $80,000, two-bedroom owners $200,000, and those with penthouses over $300,000. Residents could write a single whopping check or pay monthly over 15 years. Or they could sell and move out if they could find a buyer willing to shoulder the debt.
After years of delays, renovation plans were finalized and the work scheduled. Just before construction was to begin, the building collapsed.
If aging condos lacking the leadership and wherewithal to address known infrastructural problems were rarities, Champlain could be excused as a freak event. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The reasons are both economic and psychological.
Condominium associations derive income through monthly general assessments and periodic special assessments. The monies flow into one of two accounts: operations and reserves. Operations cover recurring short-term expenses, such as staff payroll, monthly utility and landscape bills, annual insurance premiums, and minor repairs. Reserves pay for occasional large capital outlays, like renovating lobbies and corridors every 40 years or window replacements every 50 years.
Experts suggest condo associations put 25%–40% of general assessments into reserves to build a war chest for big-ticket items to come. With their greater need to replace aging infrastructure, older buildings should save on the high side. Robert Nordlund, the founder of Association Reserves, a company that helps condominiums estimate and plan for upcoming expenses, says few condo associations reach the mark. According to Nordlund, more than two-thirds of condos are underfunded or severely underfunded. He called Champlain’s deferred maintenance and slim reserves an “example of the short-sighted decisions” condo boards and homeowners can make.
I can relate to that. The 2018 reserve study that kicked me back into the board game showed we needed millions for infrastructural repairs and replacements. Major architectural, heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, plumbing, and electrical systems were aging out. Yet precious little money was flowing into my condo’s reserves. Madame Condo was heading for a fall—financial, not structural, but one that could be just as terminal.
This isn’t the way condominiums were supposed to work. Collective home ownership promised residents a democratic and participatory decision-making process that also ensured the effective maintenance and upkeep of shared spaces and facilities. What went wrong?
American experiments in communal living trace to late–19th century New York City. Operating as limited equity, nonprofit corporations, housing collectives were first called home clubs. The moniker didn’t stick; cooperatives sounded better. Before co-ops, living in New York was a choice between single-family ownership in a detached house on the city’s outskirts or renting an apartment close in. There were pros and cons to both. A single-family home in a good neighborhood bought personal freedom, stability, and a measure of safety. But prices were high, especially in desirable locations. Maintaining a detached house was also costly. Leasing a flat in a multifamily building was cheaper, but dodgy landlords and transient tenant crime in high-turnover projects made for uncertain living.
Co-ops gave apartment buyers the best of both worlds. There were fewer break-ins in community-owned buildings because residents were financially and psychologically invested. Amenities like gathering spaces, a restaurant or cafe, an outdoor pool, and gardens added to the desirability of leaving roof repairs and lawn mowing to others.
The first co-op buyers were affluent, but collective ownership housing for immigrant and working-class families soon followed. By the mid to late 1950s, co-ops had caught the attention of developers in other areas of the country, including South Florida. There, to make mortgage lending easier, cooperative ownership was tweaked into a similar form of ownership called a condominium.
To meet America’s rising demand for affordable home ownership after World War II, in the 1960s, the federal government enacted regulations that established condominiums as a new national housing type. Owning an apartment gave people who couldn’t afford or who didn’t want or need a detached house a reasonably-priced place to live. As with single-family homes, condo owners could reap the benefits of appreciation and tax deductions.
“Condomania” swept the nation, even getting its own Monopoly-like board game. Demand was so high that, by the mid-’70s, tax laws were changed to allow condo conversions: the renovating and repurposing of existing tenements and apartment buildings into condos.
Tens of millions of Americans live in condos and co-ops today, many of which are 40 years old or older. Without major (i.e., expensive) renovations, America’s first generation of condominiums is reaching end of life. In the article “The Towers and the Ticking Clock,” the New York Times Magazine asserts, “poorly maintained and poorly funded older condominiums are common across the United States.” The Champlain Tower South collapse “exposed the startling truth [that there] are thousands of aging condos that could be next.” USA Today explains how condo owners “square off with volunteer and sometimes inexperienced board members elected to oversee the complexes in a struggle to maintain aging buildings while keeping monthly fees low and enticing new buyers.” Bloomberg News adds, in “Aging Condos Are a ‘Ticking Time Bomb’ and Need More Oversight,” that the “rap on condos is that owners and the boards they elect are poorly equipped to make important decisions about maintenance.” Pondering the dilemma further, Slate says, “Condos Are in Uncharted Territory,” and wonders if homeowner boards are “up to the task” of executing costly, complex, and disruptive infrastructural repairs and replacements.
As an architect who’s served nine years on an aging condominium’s board of directors, I have the unfortunate answer: No, condo boards are not up to the task.
Teachers, artists, attorneys, physicians, bankers, accountants, you-name-its are ill-equipped to serve on an aging home’s homeowner association. Intelligent, well-meaning people without the understanding of how to care for an elderly multistory building make poor board directors. They lack the objectivity gained through architecture or professional engineering schools. They are without hands-on industry knowledge. With no building science mastery of their own, they’re forced to rely on consultant expert opinions. In my experience, they often misunderstand what they’re told, or (worse) don’t want to hear what they don’t want to know.
Intuition is no substitute for experience. Layperson condo boards are susceptible to the siren call of optimism bias. It’s comforting to believe bad things don’t happen to good buildings, a point of view that may have kept Champlain’s board from making timely repairs in time. The converse, pessimism bias, may have also played a role in the Surfside disaster. Overestimating potential downsides of the repair plan could have cast a pall of hopelessness. Either bias can lead to inaction.
Co-owner self-governance was supposed to minimize bias-based decision-making. With three, five, or seven reasonable people sitting around a boardroom table, collective wisdom would prevail. That was the theory, anyway. History proves multiple heads are not necessarily better than one.
Jasmine Martirossian turned her Ph.D. dissertation on law, policy, and society into a 2001 book, Decision Making in Communities: Why Groups of Smart People Sometimes Make Bad Decisions. In it, Martirossian describes a third psychological flaw that can prevent homeowner boards from functioning, a situational influence called groupthink. The Oxford Dictionary defines the term as “the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility.” In proverbial terms, it’s the nail that sticks up gets hammered down syndrome. A board ruled by a bully director is as dysfunctional as one convinced that doing nothing is better than doing something.
A competent professional building management company could fill the void in board directors’ inherent understanding. Unfortunately, many management companies focus more on day-to-day activities than long-term planning. That leaves their aging condo client no better off than if the association was self-managed.
Lapses in reserve funding and maintenance may be nonissues when a building is young. Blunders become problematic when a building reaches middle age. But screwing up when a condo is 40, 50, or 60+ years old can be fatal. It’s condocide, an offense that’s long been predicted. Michael Gordon Lasner, in his book High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century, writes about the condominium “Crisis of Confidence”: “Since the 1970s, critics have raised serious concerns about co-ownership. The leading one has been that co-ownership is unsustainable—socially, financially, and physically. Well-to-do families in relatively small buildings on Park Avenue or Gramercy Park might succeed in running their homes well, it was implied, but the job was too complex for ordinary Americans to handle in a satisfactory manner.”
There comes a point in every building typology’s life when it’s time to say goodbye. Societies evolve and demand new forms of built environments. Medieval castles are no more. Once-ubiquitous drive-in theaters, pinball arcades, and phone booths are abandoned curiosities. It seems to me that the condominium era is ending with a bang, Pruitt-Igoe style.
Co-owned homes in the form of co-ops, however, will likely live long and prosper. Their stronger form of self-governance than condominiums increases the chances that aging buildings will be preserved.
Condos may be on their way out, but that’s not the end of the story. As demand for condominiums birthed condo conversions in the 1970s, condo neglect today is spawning a new building typology, condo de-conversions. Writes the Miami Herald, “Owners of units in aging condo communities near the water are receiving offers from industry-leading developers … that are sometimes two to three times over market value.” Condo de-conversions are happening across the U.S., especially in prime locations. Once investors acquire enough units, they force remaining owners out, de-convert (legally terminate) the condominium association, and renovate the building into luxury apartments or demolish it, leaving a needed form of affordable housing in the dust.
It is now May 11, 2023. My zen numbness has returned. The last stage of grief is acceptance. A year ago today, survivors of Champlain Towers South, their families, and a 132 attorneys were awarded over a billion dollars to settle lawsuits over the collapse. Payouts came from the condominium’s security company and property insurer, the association’s law firm, and Morabito Consulting. No money came from surviving directors. The board was released from liability to maintain their building properly.
Featured image by the author and DALL-E.