Before Surfside, Miami safety board sided with building owners more than inspectors

Table of Contents ‘Manipulate the system’‘A financial issue’New requirement The Miami-Dade County building inspector was concerned. Buckley Towers, a high-rise condominium in the Ojus section of Miami, had not filed its comprehensive safety assessment in 2009, as required, and had not made necessary repairs. Now, in January 2011, the inspector […]

The Miami-Dade County building inspector was concerned. Buckley Towers, a high-rise condominium in the Ojus section of Miami, had not filed its comprehensive safety assessment in 2009, as required, and had not made necessary repairs. Now, in January 2011, the inspector was back before a county oversight board arguing for action.

It was the second time the inspector had brought Buckley Towers to the attention of the quasi-judicial entity charged with keeping buildings safe across Miami-Dade County. Two years earlier, the inspector had recommended that the board require the 564-unit property to certify its safety in 30 days and bring it up to code within six months.

Back then, the board had given Buckley Towers more time to comply. Now, the building’s attorney said it did not have money for the work and needed five more years for repairs, records show. The building “does take the matter very seriously,” the former condo association president said at the time.

The result: Buckley Towers got another reprieve from the oversight group, known as the Miami-Dade Unsafe Structures Board. In mid-January 2011, it gave the condo four and one-quarter more years to finish repairs. It agreed with the building official’s request to make Buckley file periodic safety reports with the county and outline its progress. County officials later gave the complex even more time to complete the repairs based on its incremental progress.

A decade later, the work is not finished. Days after the Champlain Towers South condo building collapse killed at least 97 people in nearby Surfside, Buckley Towers appeared on a list of 24 residential properties in unincorporated Miami-Dade County that are deficient and have not been recertified as safe. Most buildings on the list were due for recertification within the past three years; Buckley Towers and one other were initially due in fall 2008.

While Buckley Towers’ residential buildings have been certified as safe, a pool deck, the clubhouse roof and parking lot lighting still need attention. The county said its engineer had not deemed the buildings’ pending structural and electrical repairs to be imminent life safety hazards.

In twice allowing Buckley Towers more time than building officials wanted to fix its problems, the Unsafe Structures Board’s decisions were not unusual, an NBC News investigation has found. From 2010 to 2021, public records of the board’s meetings show, it overrode building officials’ recommendations in so-called heard cases almost twice as often as it ruled in favor of them.

Less than a month after the Surfside tragedy, it remains unclear what caused the massive condo building to fall. The disaster has brought increased scrutiny to the structural soundness of buildings across Florida — and the U.S. — and to the work municipalities perform to keep buildings safe.

In Miami-Dade County, with a population topping 2.7 million, the Unsafe Structures Board is central to that effort — a last line of defense against risky buildings. The board’s volunteer members — professionals in real estate and related businesses for the most part — operate under the county code, reviewing decisions by municipal officials about structures in violation of the building code and hearing appeals from owners.

In cases heard by the board, building officials make specific recommendations to bring problematic properties up to code and owners or their representatives argue against them, typically asking for more time to comply. In the vast majority of such cases, both sides agreed that the property was in violation of the building code and therefore considered unsafe.

In the 72 such matters during the period, the Unsafe Structures Board overruled building officials 47 times and supported them 25 times, according to meeting minutes published on the county website. In overruling officials, the board granted building owners extra time to submit 40-year recertification reports, put off demolition, secure permits and perform other work to bring properties up to code, the minutes show.

Jason Trauth, a lawyer, chairs the Unsafe Structures Board. In an interview, he said the board listens to both sides — building officials who provide the worst-case scenario and the owners who need to complete the work. He declined to talk about specific cases heard by the board.

“Certainly, the first consideration is safety of any occupants,” he said. “In the heard cases, we do try to give extra time where it is warranted. We review the reports and documents [building officials] provide, and we’ll weigh that against what the owners have to say.”

Udonis Haslem of the Miami Heat and Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava arrive at a memorial June 30 after the Champlain Towers South building collapse in Surfside, Fla.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

None of the cases involving additional time from the board in the past 10 years appear to have resulted in catastrophic events.

Still, an unsafe structures board should be wary of kicking the can down the road, said Ken O’Dell, a veteran structural engineer and spokesman for the National Council of Structural Engineering Associations.

“I don’t want an appeals panel to say: ‘We know you agree this has to be done. We’re going to give you two more years to do it,'” O’Dell said. “You don’t want it to get into building owners’ heads that they can go to the appeals panel and get an extra couple of months to just ignore this damage, because damage builds upon itself.”

‘Manipulate the system’

Since 1975, Florida has required buildings to recertify for safety and soundness when they reach 40 years of age and then every 10 years thereafter. Brought about largely because the state is subject to intense weather events and the effects of sea and salt air, the requirement means Florida’s building code is more stringent than most others.

Still, given the Surfside calamity, 40 years might be too long to wait for reassessments, O’Dell said.

Miami-Dade published the list of 24 deficient buildings in an emergency audit after the Surfside collapse, said Tere Florin, spokeswoman for the county Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources. While not all of the buildings’ deficiencies may be structural, they still must be corrected “to ensure safe and comfortable living conditions,” she said. Only buildings in the unincorporated parts of Miami-Dade, home to 40 percent of the county’s population, are on the list. Municipalities like Coral Gables, Hialeah and Miami Beach have their own building departments to conduct investigations.

After the disaster, municipalities in Florida have been ramping up oversight. Early this month, the city of North Miami Beach ordered Crestview Towers Condominium to be evacuated after an inspection report found it to have unsafe structural and electrical conditions. And residents at a condominium building in Kissimmee had to relocate after an inspection found the structure unsafe because its walkways might collapse.

Miami-Dade inspectors have more than 1,000 buildings with overdue recertifications, Florin said, including commercial and industrial buildings. Not all of the cases will be heard by the Unsafe Structures Board, she said. Neither Crestview Towers nor Champlain Towers went before the board.

Friction is a natural outcome when municipal officials enforce building codes. Residents rarely welcome high-cost repairs, especially of unseen infrastructure elements like aging cement, steel and roofs. Before it fell, the Champlain Towers condo was assessing its owners for multimillion-dollar repairs identified as necessary in a report prepared for its 40-year recertification. The cost of the repairs had caused consternation among residents, according to reports. ​

Monitoring buildings for deterioration is a crucial activity for cities and towns. In some places, like New York and Chicago, disputes over safety issues are heard by the courts. Many states, including Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey and Ohio, allow for appeals boards to hear from property owners about building officials’ decisions.

The boards essentially act as referees between those responsible for enforcing rules and property owners faced with repairs they may not be able to afford. The Unsafe Structures Board in Miami-Dade County says it “ensures the safety of buildings and structures through conducting a fair and open public hearing process, where testimony is heard and evidence reviewed to make a determination that serves to safeguard the community.” Local building departments enforce its decisions.

Property owners asking for extra time to bring their buildings up to code can officially receive only one extension from the board, said Trauth, the chairman. But it has granted lengthy periods for compliance, meeting minutes show, some lasting years — extending previous grants of additional time.

After a fire damaged a commercial building on Harbor Drive in Key Biscayne in 2017, the Unsafe Structures Board ordered the building’s owner to repair or demolish it. It gave the owner 60 days to obtain a permit and 180 days to complete repairs, in April 2018.

Two months after the repair deadline had passed, the building inspector returned to the board citing “lack of progress” by the owner. In February 2019, the inspector advised the board not to grant additional time for repairs, as that “would not achieve compliance,” and accused the owner of continuing “to manipulate the system,” minutes of the meeting show.

The board granted the owner an extension of 150 days to complete construction. The renovated building is now up to code, the owner said.

James Cueva was a member of the Unsafe Structures Board for 21 years and chairman for most of that time until he resigned in February. In an interview, he also said safety is the board’s No. 1 concern.

Asked about the board’s tendency to overrule building officials, he agreed that it voted to give buildings more time in most cases, in part because demolition was often the alternative, but characterized the decisions as modifications, not overrides.

“I always put it on the property owner to tell us, if a building official says 180 days, how much time do you think you need?” Cueva said. “Ultimately it became a debate about what’s reasonable, how quickly can we get this structure into compliance given whatever the reality is of the scope of work that has to be done.”

In cases involving overdue recertifications, city officials typically asked that they be produced within 30 days, meeting minutes show. In three cases for which there are details in the minutes, the board allowed for at least twice as much time to recertify.

In those cases, Cueva said, no one questioned that the structures were unsafe. “I asked that question: Can we agree here the structure is unsafe? Yes. Let’s move on to what the real issue is — how much time is needed to complete the repairs?” he said. “Sometimes scope of work is an issue. Sometimes condos don’t have the money to do it.”

‘A financial issue’

Another complex overdue on recertification according to Miami-Dade’s list last month is part of the Beach Club at Fontainebleau Park in Miami. It, too, had gotten extra time to fix problems from the Unsafe Structures Board.

In 2011, records show, the county began working with the complex to bring several structures up to code. But ongoing electrical problems were presenting hazards, a building official told the Unsafe Structures Board in a meeting in July 2014. “A financial issue” had “delayed the process,” an attorney for the condo said at the time, meeting minutes show.

The building official recommended that the 40-year recertification be filed within 30 days and that repairs be completed in six months. If the county’s demands were not met, it should demolish the structures “as soon as possible,” he said.

A majority of Unsafe Structures Board members disagreed. In a 7-2 vote, they gave the complex 60 to 170 days to recertify for soundness and eight months to a year to finish repair work.

Today, said Alfredo Lopez, the president of the condo’s 12-building association, it is working toward full recertification and has provided engineers’ reports to the county stating that all the structures are livable and safe. Six have been fully recertified, he said, two are almost complete, and four more have two years of work left. “We’re complying,” Lopez said.

O’Dell, the structural engineer, said one lesson from Surfside is that building codes do not focus enough on maintenance. He pointed to an international property maintenance code created by the International Code Council as a potential model. It establishes minimum requirements for the maintenance of existing buildings; about 1,000 jurisdictions in Maryland, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee and other states follow the code, a spokeswoman for the council said.

“We all maintain our cars, change the oil, rotate our tires,” he said. “A building needs the same attention. If you have a really bad building, somebody will eventually complain, and you will be cited through these municipal codes based on unsafe structures. At that point, it’s a little too late.”

The Miami-Dade Unsafe Structures Board meets monthly in a public forum, except in August. It has 13 seats; three are vacant.

Each member is appointed by a separate Miami-Dade County commissioner. Board members generally serve for four years and are often reappointed, board staff member Kathy Charles said. Vacancies can be a problem, said Cueva, the former chairman. “Getting commissioners to timely appoint members to the board — that’s been an issue from time to time,” he said.

According to Miami-Dade code, the board “shall include a registered engineer, registered architect, a general building contractor, an electrical contractor, an attorney, a plumbing contractor, a real estate appraiser, a real estate property manager, and a citizen with experience and background in the field of social problems.”

Three board members are supposed to represent the public, Charles said; one of those seats is vacant, as are seats designated for an architect and a plumber.

At least seven members must be on hand to make determinations, Charles said. In recent years, even before the coronavirus pandemic, meetings of the board were sometimes canceled because of lack of member attendance, records show. During 2018 and 2019, two of the board’s 11 scheduled meetings were canceled, putting off safety rulings for at least a month.

The board has no attendance requirements, Charles said. Other boards do. The New Jersey Administrative Code, for example, states that if members of its Construction Board of Appeals miss more than 50 percent of meetings during a year, their attendance records will generally be considered “good cause for removal.”

New requirement

On Wednesday, the Unsafe Structures Board held its first meeting after the tragedy in Surfside. One case came before the panel — another condo overdue on its 40-year recertification report and listed as deficient by the county.

At the meeting, a county building official recommended that the condo submit the report within 30 days, obtain a permit for required repairs within 120 days and submit a final inspection on permits and a revised recertification report within 180 days.

The county also recently added a new requirement in all overdue 40-year recertification cases, the building official said. Every building working with municipalities to come to agreements about code violations now must provide engineers’ letters stating that the buildings are structurally and electrically safe within five days.

The attorney representing the condo at the meeting agreed to the terms. This time, the building official had prevailed.

Edie Villetas

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