Champlain Towers South: A tragic case study in the pitfalls of condominium association management

Owning a condominium may seem like an easy alternative to home ownership. Maintenance costs are spread among the condominium associations’ units, a board manages the condominium association’s affairs for the other association members, and a property management company might even handle the association’s day-to-day issues. After all, board members are generally volunteers who have other, full-time occupations.

But the June 24, 2021 collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Florida should be a gut-check to every condominium owner nationwide. A condominium association does not run itself.

Immediately following the tragedy, conflicting stories arose—stories that are familiar to any experienced condominium owner. In September 2019, facing substantial special assessments and unhappy unit owners, five of the seven condominium board members resigned. One board member cited a pattern of “ego battles, undermining the roles of follow board members, circulation of gossip and mistruths.” The association reportedly had less than $800,000.00 in reserves, but needed to fund more than $15,000,000.00 in repairs. The board had asked condominium unit owners to pay special assessments ranging from $80,000.00 to $200,000.00, but reports show that many condominium unit owners balked at the repair project’s scope and cost.

Condominium board members must understand their duty to act in every association member’s best interests. And condominium association members can only hold board members accountable if the members actively engage in their association, which starts with attending every quarterly meeting. There, the board should make clear what actions they have taken over the past months, and present the issues that the association expects to face in the future. Association members should also understand a building’s history. The Illinois Condominium Property Act requires condo boards to maintain the association’s records, such as by-laws, meeting minutes, and receipts for all expenditures. And every association member must know they have the right to review those records.

Associations must also lean on their professionals. For instance, a board can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to address water leaks before realizing they should have hired an engineer to comprehensively examine the root of the problem. And boards who try to deal with “problem unit owners” without understanding the rules binding the association can easily mire the association in lawsuits and a toxic living environment.

There is no doubt that the Champlain Towers South condominium association faced unique challenges leading to one of the deadliest building collapses in American history, but most condominium associations face one or more similar challenges at any given time.

If you are a condominium unit owner, board member, or property manager who needs assistance navigating these issues, feel free to contact Levin Ginsburg at (312) 368-0100.