Surfside, Fl. Condo Collapse: Socialism Needed for Safe, Quality Housing

by Ashley Rogers

The sudden collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium tower in Florida at 1:30am on June 24th, 2021 left 98 dead. The month-long search for victims only recently came to a close, with the final victim only identified on the morning of July 26th. While investigations are still underway, evidence points to crumbling foundations and severe water damage, reported by residents, maintenance workers, and engineering consultants—issues that went unaddressed for at least 3 years! At least three lawsuits have been filed since the collapse against the Champlain Towers South Condominium Association, the board that manages the building, by former tenants. But the fault for this tragedy extends beyond the individuals in office at the time of the disaster: inadequate building codes, town officials in the pockets of developers, and decades of prioritizing short-term profit over long-term maintenance contributed to this disaster—and the capitalist system is to blame!

The deterioration of Champlain Towers South was known by residents for years before the collapse. An October 2018 report by an engineering consultancy firm found serious structural issues, including a design flaw that meant water was unable to drain out of the basement, requiring an estimated $9 million in repairs. Yet, in a November 2018 meeting of the condo association, Surfside’s building official Ross Prieto assured residents that he had read the report and “it appears the building is in very good shape.” Without informed knowledge of the state of the building, the debate between residents and the condo board continued for years, as residents understandably balked at the high price tag of repairs, to be paid for by an “assessment fee” on each resident of anywhere from $80,000 to $330,000—higher than many of the units originally cost in the 1980s. Much of that amount seemed to be for aesthetic improvements to raise property values, such as $722,000 for “hallway and public area renovations,” rather than necessary structural repairs. Most residents had never seen or been informed of the warnings in the 2018 report until after the building had collapsed. 

Condo associations are not impartial democratic bodies; they’re private corporations with the primary purpose of raising and maintaining property values for the profit of a wealthy few. Voting among residents is often weighted in proportion to the size of each unit. Developers and investors who own multiple units get to vote multiple times—and renters don’t get to vote at all. Housing is vital infrastructure, a human need, and it’s clear that the responsibility for maintaining it can’t be left in private hands. Internal documents detail the dysfunction of the condo association; a PowerPoint presentation from the property manager to residents dated November 2020 includes lines such as “Complaining Or Shouting At Each Other Doesn’t Work! Voting Is The Best Way To Understand What The Majority Wants” and “This Will Be Expensive No Matter What Choices We Make.” The board was finally able to take out a $12 million line of credit required for repairs in April 2021, only months before the collapse. Repairs began soon after—but while roof work had begun before the collapse, the critical structural repairs hadn’t even been started! Residents should be informed and make democratic decisions about their housing themselves, instead of being ruled by undemocratic bodies that work for investors and developers.

The Champlain Towers South condo association had only 6.9% of the funding they needed for necessary repairs, an all too common occurrence. Thousands of condominium buildings nationwide hold less than 30% of funds needed for maintenance and repairs. Yet units continue to be sold by developers and real estate agents, with new residents not informed of the maintenance needs and costs until after the property is sold. Investors and wealthy developers—who treat housing as a commodity to be bought and sold, rather than a human need—have no concern for the safety of residents once they’ve cashed out. Their millions in profit should instead go to maintaining people’s homes and to help fund public housing and vital social services!

Champlain Towers South was built in 1981 in Surfside, Florida (a suburb of Miami) during a condo boom in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as economic deregulation pushed by the Democratic and Republican administrations of Carter and Reagan created a bubble in risky real estate investments. The weaknesses of Miami-Dade County’s building codes in this era were revealed only a decade later, when Hurricane Andrew flattened entire neighborhoods. Yet town officials were perfectly willing to overlook the already weak building codes, granting the development several exemptions after the developer gifted thousands to the town and to town council candidates. This lax enforcement played out across South Florida, with a Miami Herald editorial published the week of the collapse stating “we’d be fools not to wonder whether slipshod construction and look-the-other-way enforcement of that era played a part.” Engineers have noted inconsistencies between the building’s original plans and the amount of steel reinforcement used in critical sections of the building, a sign of corner-cutting to increase profits. Under capitalism, local and federal governments are in the hands of big business, not the working class. Strong building codes are necessary, but safety inspections must be used to serve and protect people, not to further line the pockets of the real estate industry and big banks!

The experience of Champlain Towers South echoes another tragedy just a few years prior: the Grenfell Tower fire in London, England. Four years ago, a fire started by a malfunctioning appliance quickly engulfed the entirety of the 24-story public housing complex, killing 72 people and leaving hundreds homeless. Capitalism’s priority of profit before lives was on display at every level of the disaster, from the cladding manufacturers who falsified material flammability tests, to the massively profitable construction companies cutting corners and building substandard homes, to the housing authority and local politicians who took campaign money to look the other way. Grenfell was public housing, while Champlain Towers was privately owned, but it’s clear that the same profit-seeking interests played out in both cases. Some hope that the Champlain Towers collapse will inspire building codes and regulations that will prevent another disaster; but, while inquiries on Grenfell are still continuing, only four out of 46 recommendations from the first phase of investigations have yet been implemented, to say nothing of whether they’re being enforced. Truly learning from the lessons of Grenfell and Champlain Towers will mean bringing housing—one of our most vital needs—under the democratic control of the working class, the only social force with the power to oppose capitalist profit-seeking and create housing for social needs.

Prompted by the collapse, investigations into other aging buildings have turned up widespread neglect of regular inspections and maintenance. Miami-Dade county officials announced they were prioritizing reviews of 24 multi-story buildings that had either failed their 40-year inspections or hadn’t submitted them in the first place. But 17 of those cases had already been open for a year or more. The oldest has been open since 2008. Two of those cases are open against buildings owned by the county itself. When Crestview Towers, another condo building in Miami-Dade county built in 1972, turned in their 40-year inspection following the collapse—nine years overdue—city officials ordered the immediate evacuation of the building. An apartment building was also recently evacuated, with the crumbling building now slated for demolition in December. Building inspections are a matter of public safety; property owners and condo associations shouldn’t be able to withhold inspections and put lives at risk. Former residents of both buildings are now left without housing. There are over 300,000 vacant homes in Miami – residents moved out of unsafe buildings shouldn’t be left out on the street. They need safe, quality housing immediately!

As the effects of climate change begin to impact our daily lives, more and more coastal construction will be threatened by rising sea levels. The sea has risen by eight inches since Champlain Towers South was constructed, and scientists predict sea levels in South Florida will rise up to a foot and a half by 2050. Rising seas push salt water in from the ocean and into the groundwater, a process known as “saltwater intrusion.” Besides having disastrous environmental and human consequences, this can cause the ground to shift, threatening the structural integrity of the buildings built on top, as well as deteriorating foundations not built to withstand salt water. It’s not yet known how much of a role this played in the Champlain Towers collapse, but William Espinosa, maintenance manager on the property from 1995 until 2000, reported regular flooding of one to two feet of saltwater in the building’s foundations during his tenure. He alerted the building managers, who told him it had been happening for years and took no further action. Unless serious measures are taken to address the effects of climate change on infrastructure, including repairs, improvements, and necessary relocation with full compensation for displaced working class residents, we could see many other disasters with the scale and suffering of the Champlain Towers collapse in the years to come.

The Champlain Towers South collapse was not an unavoidable accident. It was an entirely preventable tragedy brought about by capitalism, a profit-driven system that is perfectly willing to trade lives for dollars. Housing is a human right, one of our basic needs, and must be taken out of the hands of private interests. If housing infrastructure is brought under the democratic control of the working class, from planning to construction to day-to-day upkeep and maintenance, we can keep disasters like Champlain Towers from happening again, and make the massive infrastructure investments necessary to handle the effects of climate change. Capitalism offers no answers to climate change, nor does it offer solutions to the housing crisis we currently face. The only real solution is democratic economic planning for the needs of all through socialism. 

We demand:

  • Building inspections should be mandatory and more frequent, conducted by qualified engineers, with the results of the inspections immediately made public. 
  • Workers shouldn’t have to cough up millions to fix the corner cutting of money-hungry developers! Decrepit apartment and condominium buildings should be taken under public ownership and overhauled to provide safe and high quality housing. Repairs should be paid for by taxing wealthy developers.
  • Residents of buildings not fit for habitation, or those that are threatened by rising sea levels, must be guaranteed the right to relocate, with full compensation from local, state, and federal governments.
  • Construction of new housing should not be for-profit. We need massive investment in high-quality public housing, funded by taxing the rich, big developers, and major corporations, under the democratic control of renters and homeowners, with elected committees with budget and decision making power!
  • For a socialist transformation of society in order to ensure safe, comfortable housing for all and a head-on approach to slowing and addressing the problems of climate change.