Learning from Surfside tragedy: The limits of building regulations and residents' needs

Learning from Surfside tragedy: The limits of building regulations and residents' needs
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If a building falls, we mourn the lives of trapped victims. We start looking for other buildings that might suffer the same fate. We look for where we can place blame, often with the paid interests and officials sworn to protect safety, and sometimes point fingers at the residents themselves. We might even consider imposing more stringent requirements on any new buildings that might be constructed as our definitive response based on the purportedly ultimate lesson that we should build better.

We often forget that the rush to respond with regulations for the next building overlooks the fact that most U.S. homes — from oceanfront condos to urban apartments to suburban single-family homes and rural manufactured homes — already exist. According to American Housing Survey data from the U.S. Census, about a million housing units are being built each year. But these new units add to an inventory of over 140 million existing homes, most (about two-thirds) of which were built before modern building codes. And many homes, especially multifamily high-rises — like the collapsed Champlain Towers South in Surfside Florida — are occupied by low- and moderate-income households who rent or who have no resources to remedy past decisions and errors.

An authentic reckoning from Surfside requires understanding how buildings are regulated, as well as the needs of who occupies them. Here are five points worth considering.

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1. New building codes shape only new buildings — not existing ones.

The enactment of a more rigorous building code affects any buildings that are constructed afterward. There are few examples of states or cities passing rules that statutorily require the upgrading of existing buildings, such as the municipal “soft story” ordinances in Californian cities of the past decade.

After construction, states and cities have only a handful of legal remedies to address aging and often substandard housing, like health codes.

2. New building code enforcement matters.

Even if new building codes are enacted with the latest engineering insights, they are only as strong as their weakest enforcer. Cities often skimp on building departments even when permits and inspections are a major source of revenue. Cities with less tax base overall, in which low-income residents often reside, are further strapped and have minimal capacity to enforce complex, time-consuming codes.

3. Building codes in the U.S. are, partially, an exercise in self-regulation.

There is no federal building code that applies to all buildings in the country. Although states and cities adopt codes into local law, the content of the code is deliberated through a national non-profit entity in which construction interests are heavily represented. The consequences of this reality has been exposed most recently in relation to building energy codes, but the creation of building regulations of all kinds.

4. Placing blame on residents is counterproductive.

Building occupants — most of whom are not structural engineers, building scientists or geoscientists — not only lack the expertise, but they typically lack the resources to cover the costs of repairs. Almost 75 percent of multifamily residents are low-income renters, and 44 percent of this group are also below the national poverty line — a very different demographic and financial profile than the Surfside residents. 

While wealthier property developers, landlords, and condominium owners are more capable of defining their individual property’s fate, a low-income tenant is neither provided the full information about their home’s physical qualities and risks even when these are substantially substandard — nor are tenants equipped, or even permitted, to respond accordingly.

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5. Emergency capacity only is not enough.

We lack state and national capacity through policy, authority and resources to prepare buildings for future conditions except in emergency scenarios — a point at which it doesn’t do the victims of collapsed homes much good. Even in emergencies, assistance typically covers the basic needs of occupancy rather than a higher standard of construction quality. There are a few exceptions: for example, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program or the upgrades that might occur from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOME and Community Development Block Grants. But these funds barely cover the tip of the iceberg of need.

Ultimately, we need a major federal investment to repair, rehabilitate and reform our increasingly outdated housing stock. Mandated, frequent inspections of high-rise residential buildings, as has been proposed in Florida beyond the counties that currently require them. Though they are necessary, inspections alone don’t fix the problem — money, knowledge and policy do. 

Carlos Martín, Ph.D., is a Rubenstein fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program and the incoming director for the Remodeling Futures Program at Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. He is also a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.