From the Outlook Section of the Sunday Washington Post

Building 5 residents —

I think we’re lucky at Severn House to have a talented and hard-working Condo Board, but many other associations in the Annapolis area are not so lucky. And we need to keep in mind that older developments require larger investments in major maintenance and renovation projects.

From the July 4th, Washington Post — < >


Climate change could cost condo boards billions. They aren’t ready for it.

The Surfside, Fla., building collapse is just one example of a bigger looming problem

Investigators are trying to figure out why Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Fla., collapsed. Climate change could leave other condo buildings around the country facing expensive repairs and upgrades to avoid disasters. (Octavio Jones/For The Washington Post)

The collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Fla., is a terrible tragedy. Besides the stories of the victims and their grieving loved ones, early attention has focused on the causes of the collapse, such as how the building was constructed, the effects of saltwater on reinforced concrete and whether the condominium association was properly maintaining the high-rise.

Those are important matters, but the disaster exemplifies a bigger problem, one that will still loom once we have answers about what went wrong in Surfside: The untrained, unpaid and unsupervised volunteer directors of the nation’s more than 350,000 condo and homeowners’ associations, armed with limited financial resources, are expected to deal with the unprecedented infrastructure challenges that climate change poses to their communities. And there is no reason to believe that they are up to that task.

More than 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in property administered by condominium and homeowners’ associations, nonprofits run by volunteers elected by the owners. These directors and officers are responsible for an estimated $7 trillion worth of private property and infrastructure, including high-rise buildings, private streets, parks, pools, sewer and water systems, lakes, garages, and many other building systems and amenities

As condos and HOAs blossomed across the country in the last 50 years, little or no thought was given to the eventual effects of climate change, in terms of location or construction quality. The common-interest housing sector emerged in the 1960s as a way to put more people on less land, increasing developer profits and local property tax revenue. The model spread rapidly, and condos and HOAs are now the default options for new construction in many states, not just across the Sun Belt where they originated but in older metro areas as well.

Many locations are problematic from the outset. Developers often build in places that appeal to buyers but pose environmental challenges — such as on reclaimed wetlands or beaches next to rising seas, as in Surfside. Other developers place subdivisions at the top of artificial slopes that turn into mudslides in hundred-year storms, which now occur more often than they used to. Terrible disasters have struck neighborhoods built in areas that are prone to drought-induced wildfires. Local governments may approve these location decisions because they are great for sales and the property tax base, but they drop environmental issues right in the laps of condo and HOA boards.

Condo and homeowners’ associations were never designed or empowered to handle such conditions. These associations are essentially on their own, with virtually no support from any level of government. Although most of them operate well most of the time, paying for routine maintenance and repair has always been a challenge, long before climate change made things worse. For years, industry insiders have pointed out that although directors and officers are responsible for maintaining the property, most unit owners are notoriously unwilling to see their housing costs go up now to sock away funds for repairs in the future. Why, they ask, should they pay today so someone else can have a new roof long after they’ve moved out? Yet that is precisely what they are expected to do. Somehow, dozens, hundreds or even thousands of owners are supposed to overcome their self-interest and collective-action problems and commit to maintaining their private infrastructure in perpetuity.

Climate change made Arizona’s heat wave worse. And it won’t be the last one.

Now the maintenance and repair responsibilities that condo boards struggle with every day, with varying degrees of success, are being amplified by the effects of global climate change. It is increasingly clear that owner resources and volunteer expertise are inadequate to meet the challenge of maintaining buildings, preventing and mitigating climate-related damage, and restoring property that is severely harmed or even destroyed.

The Surfside disaster is an instructive example of an association faced with environmental challenges beyond its means. The 12-story condo tower with 136 units was built 40 years ago on reclaimed beachfront wetlands, where the proximity of a rising ocean, saltwater and gradual land subsidence have been constant threats to structural integrity. A few years ago, engineers told the condo board that they had an expensive problem on their hands with deteriorating reinforced concrete. After much internal back-and-forth, the board recently assessed a total repair cost on the owners of $15 million. That averages out to more than $110,000 per unit for this midsize association, an eye-popping figure for any homeowner and one that would undoubtedly put many into foreclosure for failure to pay. Repairs were set to begin soon; residents were initially supposed to decide whether to pay their share of the assessment at once or in monthly installments by this past Thursday.

Some are claiming that the collapse could have been avoided if better maintenance had been done earlier. Maybe. But there are thousands of beachfront condos on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts. We cannot expect all of them to be maintained consistently to industry standards with sea level rise, storm surge, land subsidence and a host of other coastal climate issues in mind. We know there will always be some that risk skipping maintenance, thinking the worst won’t happen there.

Sea level rise is not the only climate-related problem that places owners in harm’s way and that local governments and developers never anticipated. It is clear by now that climate change produces heavy rainfall, including hurricanes and so-called 100-year storms, that can cause major flooding, landslides and other stormwater-related disasters. Condo and homeowners’ associations have been severely affected by such events, and developers have been sued from coast to coast over their failure to anticipate them and build accordingly. Expensive litigation after the fact is no substitute for prevention, but it is unrealistic to expect condominium and homeowner associations to undertake costly anticipatory measures. They have neither the expertise nor the resources to do so. In most cases, they don’t even know where to begin.

Many other communities have been built near places prone to wildfires, which have taken on new ferocity in drought conditions fueled by global warming. The costs of safeguarding neighborhoods against these fires are daunting for owners and associations, and prevention is almost entirely out of their hands. In 2003, wildfires destroyed 331 homes in Scripps Ranch, an upscale San Diego-area neighborhood where developer-created HOA requirements for wooden “shake” shingle roofs accelerated the destruction. The San Diego City Council banned these roofs in new construction, including for people who wanted to rebuild their homes. Yet they faced intense resistance from Scripps Ranch owners over proposed building code changes intended to protect their homes against future wildfires, because implementing those changes would have been expensive. Owners in a fire-prone area might be understandably angry if their association required them to pay for new roofs, elaborate sprinkler systems, doors and windows with heat-resistant double-glazed material, and special fire-retardant house paint. If local governments encounter pushback when they require such measures, it seems unlikely that condo and homeowners’ associations would adopt them voluntarily.

In effect, condo and HOA developments are a huge experiment in privatization of local government functions, and sometimes the offloading of government responsibilities goes too far. We can expect a condo or HOA board to handle garbage collection, get the leaves and snow removed from private streets, and broadly live up to its responsibilities to residents. But when private communities took off in the 1960s, we didn’t even know what climate change was. We cannot realistically expect condo boards to prevent damage from sea level rise, more-frequent severe storms, extreme heat and drought, and other major changes in the environment — especially not in buildings that weren’t built to withstand such conditions. If the proliferation of condos and HOAs is to continue in the time of climate change, federal, state and local governments must play a more supportive, directive and protective role. Otherwise, millions of owners and their volunteer community leaders will be swamped by forces beyond their control.

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By Evan McKenzie

Evan McKenzie teaches in the political science department and the law school at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of two books about condominium and homeowner associations.

Bruce Potter
764 Fairview Avenue
Annapolis, MD 21403

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About Bruce

Work for sustainable development of small islands and the Chesapeake Bay; ex-Peace Corps (Volunteer and staff) in LA & Caribbean; cruised Caribbean on S/Y Meander for three years; like small tropical islands, French canals, Umbria, Tasmania, and NZ. Married 52 years to the late Kincey Burdett Potter (see President of the now-sunsetting Island Resources Foundation.
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