Condo stakeholders call for effective laws to assure buildings’ longevity
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
In the aftermath of the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside, Florida, which had claimed the lives of at least 90 residents as of press time Sunday, condominium stakeholders in Puerto Rico told the STAR that a review of existing public policies on building development and stricter public safety laws are required to prevent a similar or worse disaster from happening in Puerto Rico.
ADV Architects President Astrid Díaz told the newspaper that although condo owners are required by law to establish and file an emergency disaster plan to government agencies such as the Permit Management Office (OGPe by its Spanish acronym), the Legislature must pen bills that focus on requiring annual inspections and that building recertifications are conducted on a regular timeline to evaluate if an older structure continues to comply with recent public safety policies.
Moreover, she said, existing laws should be amended to include more rigorous policies regarding effective emergency plans to safeguard the lives of condo holders.
Díaz also urged the government to assure that neither existing nor future laws remain unenforced.
“Condo holders are not aware of the legal, architectural, and mechanical issues of their building, they just trust what they get hold of when they purchase the property,” she said. “What happened in the Champlain Towers South should be a learning experience for the world.”
“As architects, we design spaces that are habitable, where people can be happy, live comfortably, and develop their lives,” Díaz added. “When we see these tragedies, our hearts are overwhelmed because this is exactly the opposite of what we are supposed to do as we also contribute to society’s wealth.”
Díaz also told The STAR that in order to develop effective legislation to strengthen oversight on condominiums’ longevity, an analysis that considers factors such as the age of the building and the useful life of the materials, corrosion issues, its location, and recent events such as Hurricane Maria and the 2020 earthquakes in the southeast of Puerto Rico is required.
Moreover, she said, the Legislature must investigate the extension of recent laws to guarantee effective emergency planning.
“I have seen emergency plans that are copies of any flyer that suggests to you what to do before, during, and after an emergency like a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami,” she said. “What [condo holders] must know is how to act during an emergency from where they specifically live; that’s what matters.”
“According to the law, a special session must be held at the building to expose, discuss and teach the emergency plan to both property holders and workers; more than that, the plan must be released and practiced, and that is not happening,” Díaz added.
The architect also said the 2020 New Puerto Rico Condominium Law must be amended to require recertifications.
“Inspections are one thing, recertifications are another issue,” she said. “When you pursue recertifications, you submit every building plan once again to OGPe to confirm if the [structure] fulfills the current public safety and building policies.”
However, she told The STAR that such a procedure can involve costs that most condo owners prefer to dodge.
“You don’t have to rebuild your building, but if you have to update something with it, it can get expensive; therefore, both associations and condo owners must plan ahead that, in a certain moment, it has to happen,” Díaz said. “If we look at it from an economic standpoint, you’re guaranteeing to future condo holders that their property has more value and fulfills whatever is necessary to live in a healthy and safe home.”
“I see that people get concerned when their lives are at risk, but when they get to the point where they have to spend a dime to guarantee that safety, they seem to put a hold on it,” she added. “And they should not because that is what makes you sure that your property will last 40 more years and you will make sure every holder trusts you more.”
Díaz likewise urged future unit owners to be proactive, seek out a certified inspector, and converse with the owners of a planned building about the pros and cons of living in a prospective condominium during a disaster emergency.
Mary Ortega, executive director of the Puerto Rico Association of Condominiums and Access Controls, agreed that there should be legislation to require condominiums to conduct inspections of the structure of their buildings in a timely manner.
“Every two years, condo managers must conduct inspections to assure the building’s valuation, and also their insurance companies need to know [the building’s] current condition and future improvements,” she said, adding that a similar or stricter procedure must become public policy on the island.
“There must be an obligation because something that happens in Puerto Rico and many other places is that the condo’s board of directors and its unit holders do not reach an agreement because it would involve an expense, which [raises doubts about] any repairs [in the building],” Ortega said. “We have seen that a number of professionals are losing credibility with condo [unit] holders simply because these professionals need to be paid for their labor,”
Meanwhile, Marimar Pérez Riera, president of the Puerto Rico Condominium Holders Association, told the STAR that the current Condominium Law “should be amended in its majority” and include resources that allow property holders to hold their boards of directors accountable and to request repairs.
“Even though the recent law establishes that a person can hold a position on the condo’s board up to three years, we have heard stories and seen events where board members kidnap the seat for long periods of time; we have heard of some holding their presidency up to 15 years,” Pérez Riera said. “We have seen some boards play musical chairs with their members and change their seats among themselves, where one who was president for three years exchanged their seat with the vice president for another three years.”
“What they do here is perpetuating and hijacking condos, and that is the kind of board that is not acting right; that smells bad for something,” Pérez Riera added. “Those boards are dangerous because they are essentially not complying with the law, but then the holders can’t do anything. The condo holders council can nominate someone, but they don’t give them a break.”