O-M-G is my condominium safe to live in?
This is a question that echoed across America this week. On Saturday, June 26th at about 1:35 AM in Surfside, Florida a condominium called Champlain Towers South partially collapsed. They captured the collapse on video. When you watch this video, you are in absolute shock knowing that it was not intentional. Knowing that there are people inside fast asleep, not aware of what was happening. Eventually, rescue workers are on-site to search for survivors. Hopefully, they will find many. This is the largest non-hurricane survivor rescue in Florida’s history.
If you are one of the millions of people that live in a condominium development, you are wondering right now is my building safe? The problem is many, including myself, allow all that assurance to be the responsibility of a tiny board of directors. After seeing this video of a collapsing condominium, I remember all my experiences about the board of directors’ meetings of condominium developments that I attended or served on.
It is sad to say that many directors on boards are there because of one reason. That reason can be because their spouse or a partner is not happy about flowers in front of the building, the current security they have, smoking in a certain unwanted area, laundry rooms not being closed early enough because there’s so much noise and the list goes on and on. It seems to be their entire mission while on the board because of this one burdening problem in their mind. I recall once a colonel that was on a board that ran it like a tight ship. He marched around the complex with such authority and rule. It reminded me why we call them condo commanders, or at least in their mind they are. He was heading a lawsuit against the builder that was not properly insulating the apartments. That insulation could have been something as menial as sound abatement or as serious as fireproofing but regardless, it was not there. Eventually, they settled with the builder, but they did not solve alas that problem.
The real question is why we vote people like this in as a Board of Directors? We never ask ourselves. Are they competent? Are they capable? Are they able to help campaign a serious problem? I can give an example of a condominium development in Honolulu HI that did NOT ask these questions. They completed the building around 1968, over 53 years ago. You should know, or at least realized living in a building like that will have many building codes change every year and they do that for a reason. They change codes to protect you. So, it does not take long to imagine how many code changes have been and replaced old code since 1968 or 53 years ago. A recent board president of this building decided that his last hurrah of being a board member was to try again to pass a member vote to build a swimming pool on the top of an 18-floor condominium that was built in 1968. This is how this president persuaded owners to approve, albeit this is less than 30% owner-occupied. At every board meeting the president and other board members, noting one is a realtor. All stated, “This is a great investment adding a pool. You have to do it. A pool will increase the value of your property. I guarantee.” Reminding you it’s a code of ethics violation for a realtor to state that it will increase value in a property if you buy it and improve it in this manner. But that’s not the point. The biggest obstacle was a company that owns a great deal of floor space, thus having a large proxy vote. Their investment is a parking garage seven floors and four restaurants in the same building connected, so to speak. To get this to pass, the board of directors President promised that organization, that they would not have to pay any of the deferred maintenance cost for building of or adding a swimming pool on top of the building. They pay NO maintenance fees for this pool project IF they vote yes. So apparently with his assurance, they agree. He also is so infatuated with building this swimming pool, that failed the first time that he tried to pass a vote now only owners may vote NO proxy are allowed to vote. This vote was following a bigger problem in Honolulu. There was a recent fire in a Highrise taking several people’s lives. That building had no sprinkler systems because of its age. The City and County of Honolulu passed a law that you either had to get permission to opt out by professional fire inspections or install sprinkler systems. That individual unit sprinkler project is a sizable expense to say the least. The president of this association will borrow money to build his [Taj Mahal] swimming pool and not to install sprinkler systems for the health and safety of the residents. He stated in the annual 2020 meeting that the swimming pool would pay back monthly on a borrowed loan, but the sprinkler systems will have to be paid immediately upon due notice for approximately 10 to $12,000 or maybe more per condominium unit. This is lunacy. I have heard of recent through rumor that the president and wife have resigned or forced off the board by other board members leaving a vacancy, but the association is still on the hook for this ridiculous pool deck [Taj Mahal!!!] Amazing. Not to mention this building is less than 15 yards from the ocean! Wow, that’s a lot to put on a roof. Who even knows if it’ll even pass the inspection to support a swimming pool on top of a building that was built 53 years ago? I have heard that they are now in the search for either one or two board seats to be filled. Good luck with that especially considering this recent horrible tragedy in Florida.
I have many many more examples, but I will not bore you with those today. I write this so that you of one of many million people that live in condominiums need to take a serious interest in your building.
Foremost, you need to read all the condominium documents that you received when you bought the property. If you do not have current documents, make sure you get them. You should also have a copy of all minutes taken at the meeting, but I assure you it is far more important to attend that meeting than read the minutes. The minutes are very sparse. There is not much written in the minutes. I even had someone tell me to omit details, brevity brevity that’s the key for minutes. You want to be there in the board meetings and hear what they say and hear how they answer. Many of those answers never make it into the minutes. That is why you must be there. You have a right to ask questions before the meeting closes about the health of the building. You have a right to know if there are any concerns with the building. You have a right to know what the priority is for repair and maintenance! Do not sit there and listen to one person with lunacy ideas that are grandiose, let alone that could very well jeopardize your investment or even your life. Look at their annual profit and loss and see where they are spending money. If it looks like they are spending lots of money to do patch overs of things that can eventually cost much when they fail, then you should bring them to their attention. You need to find out if your state has a requirement for certain minimums in reserve. Ask when was the last reserve study? The reserve money is money that you will use in an emergency to repair something. You need to know about building inspections. Inspections will tell you about the health of the building. If you do not feel like you are getting suitable answers from your board of directors, you certainly have a right to talk with the planning department in your city and ask how inspections are conducted for high-rise condominiums. Also, there are departments within your city government that you may complain to about the reckless board of directors. There is a notation however after this tragedy in Florida, most of those inspection departments are going to be overwhelmed with calls about this topic.
Get all your documentation for the building that you live in.
Get all the minutes of your last ten years or more, read everything.
Attend board of director meetings.
Your state has a law for posting notices of the board of director meetings.
Ask questions if you do not understand.
Ask when the last extensive engineering building inspection was.
(Make sure your board of directors does not ask their buddy to do this kind of inspection for a discount or a “board member he’s an engineer” to do the inspection ….. please) You only get what you pay for!
Research your area for ground movement. The USGS might be able to help you with that or direct you to the right place.
Find out your state law for the board of directors going into executive session. I have seen this trickery abused many times in the past.
Understand Robert's Rules of Procedure if your board of directors conducts meetings by this protocol. Your board of directors can forbid you from talking at certain times, but not completely during the entire meeting.
A side note: I was on a board of directors once and there was a lady from Texas that really knew Robert’s Rules of Procedure and she dominated that meeting once. As president that year I made sure until we all understood the rules forward and to have an onsite expert for using Robert’s Rules of Procedure and consultation.
This is your home. I understand there are limited common elements, but you need to get involved in your home.
The recent tragedy in Surfside, Florida waked a sleeping giant of neglect in our nation of condominiums. Our prayers go out to the families lost, the missing family animals, and the uncertainty of unaccounted individuals in Champlain Towers South, Surfside, Florida. Stay strong!