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After The Surfside Tragedy, Pittsburgh-Area Condominiums Take Stock

Building Collapse Miami
Lynne Sladky
A police officer walks past the collapsed and demolished Champlain Towers South condominium building, Tuesday, July 6, 2021, in Surfside, Fla.

Since half of a Surfside, Florida condo collapsed in late June, condominium and homeowners associations across the country have begun to look to their own homes. Attorneys in Pittsburgh say their clients have not expressed fears for their safety, but focused on questions concerning maintenance and management.

“Our concerns in Pittsburgh are really different from the ones in Florida,” said Kim Tague, an attorney with Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky who represents many area associations. “I don’t think any of my clients are really concerned that the building will fall down.”

Instead, Tague said board members have dusted off their insurance policies to see what, and who, is covered, and to ensure they have the resources to take care of their communities.

“The goal is to have enough money set aside so that things never fall into disrepair, so that you never get to a point where things are unsafe,” said Tague. She said associations can hire experts to conduct a reserve analysis, to make sure that the organization’s budget and fees will be able to cover expected repairs.

In 2018, a consultant’s engineering report informed the management of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fl. of “major structural damage” that needed to be “repaired in a timely fashion.” That work was reportedly set to begin this year. (Some reports now suggest structural shortcuts may also be at fault.)

Bill Labovitz, an attorney with Pittsburgh-based firm Anderson & Labovitz, said the board members of a condominium or homeowners association are supposed to act in the long-term interests of the corporation. That means not kicking the can down the road when it comes to thorny questions, like raising fees to pay for expensive repairs.

However, most boards are run by volunteers who don’t have much experience with government, and it’s hard to raise taxes on your neighbors, Labovitz said.

“People going into these roles really have to expect that sometimes they’re not going to be liked that much.”

Fear of that personal friction can “create problems along the lines of what is being reported [with regard to] the deferred maintenance” in Florida, he said.

Tague agreed those tensions can prevent necessary action, but added that even if a board does want to raise fees, it may not be feasible. Special assessments can climb into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which elderly residents, or those with modest incomes, may not be able to cover. Condo associations can take out a loan, but a bank has to approve it. If a building is too compromised, “what would your collateral be?” Tague asked. “Your condo that’s unsound?”

And Tague said that under the law, condominium and homeowners associations are essentially small cities unto themselves.

“When you’re a condominium association it’s a bunch of elected volunteers, sometimes it’s only three people … and they’re running a multi-million dollar real estate company with no employees.”

Tague said she doesn’t expect to see the laws that enable condominiums to change. Instead, she thinks people will simply be more reluctant to sit on the board.

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.
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