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Sen. Pizzo: Major reforms to Florida’s condo laws could take time

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Sen. Pizzo: Major reforms to Florida’s condo laws could take time
Sen. Jason Pizzo

Sen. Jason Pizzo

A South Florida legislator whose district includes Surfside says he is eager to review the recommendations of a Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section task force that is studying the deadly Champlain Towers South condominium collapse.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, predicted that the Condominium Law and Policy on Life Safety Task Force, chaired by University of Miami School of Law adjunct professor William Sklar, will be a valuable resource.

“Bill Sklar’s task force has a number of able-bodied people,” he said. “I expect a lot from them, and I think it should be well received.”

Elected in 2018, Pizzo is a former prosecutor who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee, a rare perk for a Democrat in a Republican-controlled Legislature.

Pizzo warned that any major reforms could take time.

“Although I’ve only been the Legislature for three years, I know that they sometimes take an incremental approach,” he said.

The June 24 collapse killed 98 and left scores homeless, but Pizzo said any proposed reforms are likely to generate opposition.

“There’s always a doom-and-gloom, apocalyptic scenario cast by some — management companies and others — that like the status quo and want to keep things where they are,” he said.

Pizzo is also eagerly awaiting the findings of an engineering task force that is studying the collapse. Meanwhile, it could take months, or years, for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce, to pinpoint an exact cause for the collapse, Pizzo said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and House and Senate leaders have declined to speculate so far about a potential legislative response.

Sklar said the mission of the condo task force is to determine “if there are any amendments or changes to the existing law that would either prevent or minimize the likelihood of another tragedy like Surfside Champlain Towers South.”

The task force will focus, among other things, on a law that requires condominiums to be reinspected after 40 years.

Since the disaster, the state Division of Condominiums, Time Shares and Mobile Homes has identified 912,000 condominiums in Florida that are 30 years or older and that are home to more than 2 million residents. But Florida’s reinspection requirement only applies to buildings in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Pizzo has already pledged to file inspection reforms.

“First and foremost, the 40 years has always been arbitrary,” he said. “The recertification process is a nice start, but it considers a building or a structure in a vacuum.”

A Central Florida building doesn’t take the same punishment as an oceanfront dwelling, where salt water is a potential hazard to concrete, Pizzo said.

“I think something sitting on the beach should be gauged in dog years,” Pizzo said. “I took the last pictures I think that were ever posted of the actual [disaster] site, and after a day of no rain, it’s wet.”

The condominium task force is also focusing on such things as how condominium boards function, manage their reserves, and communicate with residents.

The latter has been the subject of legislation that Pizzo has sponsored, unsuccessfully, for the past two years.

Last session, Pizzo filed SB 1998, which would have required large condominium associations to post on their websites digital copies of “all official records subject to inspection by tenants or unit owners or their authorized representatives.”

“Because the bane of everyone’s existence, and the bulk of all litigation and adversarial proceedings between residents, associations and managers, is just the production of records,” Pizzo said.

The bill died in the Regulated Industries Committee. It and a similar bill Pizzo filed in 2019, SB 610, would have created criminal penalties for condominium associations that commit financial fraud. It was dubbed the “Lock-Them-Up-Bill.”

Florida law requires condominium associations to produce an annual budget and to maintain reserves, but the definition of reserves is narrow, and the law allows boards to waive the requirement. Too often boards keep maintenance assessments artificially low to remain popular and continue winning reelection, Pizzo said.

The board that served Champlain Towers South was struggling to raise money from residents to pay for a major renovation, Pizzo notes.

“Champlain Towers had about $600,000 or $700,000 in reserves for $15 million worth of necessary repairs,” Pizzo said.

But Pizzo said he would oppose any attempt by the Legislature to dictate a minimum level of reserves.

It’s the same reason, Pizzo said, that he opposed a perennial bill to mandate retrofitting residential high rises with sprinkler systems. The last time the sprinkler bill came up, Pizzo said, experts estimated that it could cost the average condominium resident between $10,000 and $12,000.

“I certainly don’t want someone to die in a fire. . . but I certainly don’t want to displace hundreds of people and make elderly people homeless,” he said.

Pizzo said insurance reforms could provide a “market-based” solution. Too many insurance companies fail to adequately assess risk, he said.

“If agents, brokers, and insurance companies really, really wanted to price risk, and be invasive — so to speak– and really look a structure, insurance premiums would be a lot higher,” he said.

If condominium residents received a discount on their property insurance for a well-maintained building, the savings could be used over time to build up adequate reserves, he said.

Automobile owners receive discounts for alarms and air bags, Pizzo noted.

“My push back is going to be, listen, for the same people that are crying foul about the infirmity of a number of buildings and their conditions, surely we should have the insurance companies reflect it in a reduction of premium, or price it accordingly,” he said.

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