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After Surfside, Miami-Dade Has Estimated 1,000-Case Backlog Of Unsafe Structures

Workers walk past the collapsed and demolished Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Fla., on Tuesday.
Workers walk past the collapsed and demolished Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Fla., on Tuesday.

Members of the Miami-Dade County Unsafe Structures Board meet once a month to provide oversight to properties that have been declared unsafe by county building inspectors.

During a meeting this week, board members said they estimate about 1,000 unsafe structures cases are currently pending. In the wake of the Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside, the backlog of cases became a heated debate for the board, with many members pushing to work through the old cases.

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“We don’t have none of the records. We don’t know what is actually happening with those buildings. We don’t know in what state they are,” said board member Marco Gorrin. “There should not be continuing, and continuing of any type, of referring for a later date. If you don’t comply then something has got to get done. Then maybe we [won’t] have a few more buildings drop down.”

The discussion centered around cases that get deferred to a later date once they come up on the agenda.

Deferrals are meant to be used as a way to ensure compliance while also taking the homeowners' or condo board’s finances in mind, said Spencer Errickson, the supervisor of the county’s unsafe structures division.

The county tries to come to agreements with property owners to make needed repairs to properties and cases are only deferred when movement towards repairs has taken place. Deferred cases also require letters from engineers showing that the property is safe for occupation, or use, while repairs are being done.

“If you rule on that case, there is a cost to the homeowner. If I defer the case and they’re in compliance, there’s no cost to the homeowner,” said Errickson. “If they’re not in compliance they’re coming before you anyways, later.”

Board member Aymara ‘Amy’ Riley expressed frustration about the backlog of pending cases, but also noted that “unsafe structures” are not always as bad as they might sound.

“I know the name unsafe structure drives people like ‘Oh my God, the building is gonna fall down!’ No, that’s not necessarily the case,” she told WLRN. “When a building is declared unsafe it could be something for a simple fire that happened in a corner but they automatically declare the whole building unsafe till it can be resolved. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it cannot be occupied, or that it’s a life-safety issue.”

Riley called on the Miami-Dade County Commission to grant the Unsafe Structures Board the authority it used to have until about ten years ago, when the scope of its jurisdiction was rolled back by the commission.

She pointed to how the board oversaw the case of the Miami-Dade Turner Guilford Knight jail facility as an example of the kind of jurisdiction she would like to get back. The jail was deemed an unsafe structure for years in the early 2000s, until the county made the needed repairs.

“We retained that for years, to make sure we had specific timelines and we would ask to speak to the inspectors directly. And they would have to come before us and give us updates every month as to what was going on,” Riley said.

That level of oversight is no longer available to the board. Members complained that often building owners or municipal officials who refer cases to the board never even show up to the meetings, leaving them in the dark about any ongoing repair efforts.

The chairman of the board, Jason Trauth, has been on the Unsafe Structures Board for about ten years, and he said he could not recall any cases where a facility was evacuated due to findings or recommendations of the board. But Surfside is a wake-up call, he said, and the board is thinking critically about its duties and whether they need to be reformed.

“We had an extremely catastrophic event happen and it’s made all of us, no matter how small [a] part we have in this going, all the way down from the owners and all the way up to the county commission and the mayor to say ‘This is why we’re here and this is what we do and we need to do it as best as we possibly can,’" he said.

At the same time, he likened building safety and the condo collapse to flying on an airplane after a major aircraft accident. People tend to get worried about flying after a significant crash, but he argued it might well be the safest time to fly.

“Everyone from the lowest mechanic all the way up to the CEO is making sure everything on that plane is working, and everything that can be done is being done,” he said. “I think we’re in that moment here.”