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Matthew Gordon Lasner: Condo Buildings are at Risk. So is all Real Estate.

by Matthew Gordon Lasner | Jul 06, 2021

The disaster in Surfside, Florida, focuses attention on condominiums’ flaws, but all forms of property ownership carry the potential for ugly surprises

After most of a condominium tower in Surfside, Florida, collapsed last week, the second-guessing began almost immediately. Some residents accused the building’s condominium association of acting too slowly to address known structural flaws identified in a 2018 engineering report. Recent news stories have emphasized dissension among the owners. As someone who studies condos—their history, architecture, politics, and social dynamics, in Florida and all over the United States—I, too, have been wondering whether the building’s divided ownership contributed to the June 24 catastrophe, which killed at least 18 people and left more than 140 missing. Could a single landlord have responded better to engineers’ and occupants’ concerns than an association of 136 homeowners?

Condos have long been big business and a way of life in southeast Florida, which by the 1970s had become America’s center of condo living. Today roughly one in five homeowners in U.S. cities and suburbs lives in a multifamily complex rather than a single-family house, according to U.S. census figures; in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, that share rises to one in three. Surfside residents described Champlain Towers South as a genuine community: “There was a beautiful mixture of cultures and people in that building,” one local told The Wall Street Journal. “People from South America, Cuban Jews, American Jews, American nationals.”

In most ways, the tower in Surfside was no different from Florida’s thousands of other high-rise condo buildings. Those, meanwhile, face many of the same risks—most notably their proximity to the ocean during a time of sea-level rise—as single-owner apartment buildings and other concrete-and-steel properties along the Florida coast. A number of reports suggest that the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association functioned properly and had moved methodically, albeit amid considerable resistance, to figure out how to fix the problems that an engineer had identified.
Read full article here.

Matthew Gordon Lasner is the author of High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century. He teaches urban studies and planning at Hunter College.  He joined SAH in 2001, and served as a Session Chair in 2016 and Speaker in 2018 and 2020 Annual International Conferences.  


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