The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Surfside tragedy has raised questions about Florida’s anti-regulatory history

How the quest for development at all costs has left the state’s residents vulnerable

A man places flowers on a memorial for the victims of the Champlain Towers South condominium collapse in Miami on July 8. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Officials recently ended search-and-rescue operations at the site of the Surfside condo collapse in Florida, where at least 90 people had died and 31 others remained unaccounted for as of Sunday afternoon. This tragedy has raised questions about a building regulatory environment in a state where much of the condominium housing is older, seawater levels are rising and climate change will probably play a role in further infrastructure damage in the coming years.

Now, local governments are rushing to inspect high-rise buildings that are 40 or more years old. The number 40 was chosen because that was the age of an ill-starred Miami building that collapsed in 1974, an event that prompted officials in what was then Dade County (now Miami-Dade) to pass a 40-year recertification requirement.

When a building turns 40, a licensed engineer must inspect the structure for cracks, exposed rebar or other signs of decay, then certify it fit for occupancy and reinspect the building every 10 years thereafter. But only two counties, Miami-Dade and Broward — out of 67 in Florida — have this 40-year condominium inspection requirement, and the state has no post-construction inspection requirement at all.

This isn’t an accident. Florida has never been big on building regulation or anything that might slow or stymie the profitable housing market. In fact, for much of its history, the state’s unofficial mantra was: “If you build it, they will come.” The quest for growth and development at all costs has built the state, made a fortune for developers — and left residents highly vulnerable to the kinds of catastrophes that could be prevented by more attention, regular inspections and care.

Take the city of North Port, one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in Florida, if not the United States. Located in Southwest Florida in the southern part of Sarasota County, North Port was planned and built by the community-building General Development Corporation (GDC) in the 1950s. Based in Miami but listed on Wall Street, GDC “bought by the acre and sold by the foot,” using $10-down, $10-a-month installment land sales programs to hawk hundreds of thousands of lots.

GDC sold a version of the American Dream, mostly to White, middle-class, fixed-pension and Social Security-dependent Northern retirees, who, wishing to flee Rust Belt cities but priced out of suburbs like Levittown, N.Y., snapped up homesites in planned communities in Florida. As one GDC executive put it, in the past, people “played up Florida as a rich man’s playground. Now we’re finding that the mass market — of folks of moderate income — is far more important, and in the long run, far more lucrative for us.”

Sales-wise, GDC and its competitors faced almost no oversight. Salesmen could, and often did, say anything to pressure Northerners into buying property sight unseen, often through cold calls from phone centers or “win a week in Florida” contests in which everyone won trips — but nothing was free. Actually, the hotel rooms were free, provided “winners” paid an “overhead and processing fee” and attended what one contest called a “Fabulous Florida Dinner-Show,” which, in effect, was a sales pitch.

The tactics worked: Between 1955 and 1970, GDC and other installment land sales companies sold an estimated $2 billion in homes and lots, about $10 billion in today’s dollars, while building entire cities from scratch, including North Port, Port St. Lucie, Port Charlotte, Cape Coral, Palm Bay, Palm Coast, Golden Gate, Lehigh Acres and Spring Hill.

In the process, they transformed the state by dredging and filling and backhoeing and bulldozing what had mostly been wet pineland into millions of treeless rectangles, the fundamental building blocks of suburbs everywhere that in Florida became an endless gridiron of brutally denuded 80-by-125-foot lots.

In 1959, a development-wary Sarasota County decided it’d had enough. Officials there wanted no part of GDC’s sprawling North Port development, whose plans included thousands of homes for newcomers — but no sewer or central water systems and a network of substandard roads. When GDC submitted its plans to the county, the county said no. But, seeking profit above all else, GDC pulled a fast one. Rather than build the necessary infrastructure to appease Sarasota County, the company convinced a pro-development state legislature in Tallahassee to allow North Port to leave the county’s jurisdiction and to incorporate as its own city.

The result was that in 1960, North Port had no city-owned buildings whatsoever and no fire department or police force. But at GDC’s urging, it was able to annex from the county nearly 17,000 acres of GDC-owned land. That exempted the company from all county regulations, covering everything from zoning and drainage to inspections, utilities delivery, lot-size minimums and roads.

“The whole thing is a joke,” said an angry Sarasota County planning director in 1960, and it’s “not a funny joke either. There is absolutely no reason for the incorporation of this area except to avoid county regulations. … [Now] all of the normal rules that apply to developers are out the window.”

Unfortunately, the freewheeling, pro-development and anti-regulatory history of North Port was par for the course in Florida. In fact, before the 1970s, only municipalities, meaning cities and towns, had the blanket authority, under Florida law, to insist that an area be zoned for commercial use, for example, or that buildings be no more than a certain height or be inspected regularly or that neighborhoods even have sidewalks or a certain quality of road.

That’s why North Port became a city in the first place: to circumvent inspections and codes. Although some counties — such as Sarasota — asked for and received special acts of the legislature allowing them to plan, inspect and zone, most didn’t even bother. “Why pester developers?” the thinking went. Developers meant money and jobs.

Things got better in 1974, when the state required local governments, including counties, to adopt and enforce minimum standard codes. They could choose from four codes but amend and administer them as they saw fit. Even in those days, Miami-Dade was a leader. The county had long maintained one of the strictest building codes in the state, which it enhanced periodically with things like 40-year condominium inspections and hurricane mitigation provisions following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

In 2001, the state finally implemented a single uniform code, used in all jurisdictions. Written in response to Hurricane Andrew, which had caused billions in damage to Florida’s coastal areas, the new Florida Building Code unified more than 400 local codes and included a plethora of new hurricane-related provisions to ward off wind-borne debris. But the 2001 Florida Building Code was, in reality, a hurricane code. That was its focus, and it did not require structural-integrity inspections of buildings after they were built.

Thus, the irony of the recent Surfside tragedy is that Miami-Dade County had some of the best condominium building and inspection codes in Florida, both when the tower was built in 1981 and when it was inspected in 2018. Yet between its 40-year inspection and the engineer’s report to the building’s condominium association, whose duty it was to fix the building, someone dropped the ball. We’re still figuring out what happened.

But now, an even bigger question is: What about old buildings in other parts of the state, some of which were constructed before 1974, when many Florida counties, in unincorporated areas outside of cities, didn’t have building codes or had a patchwork, and which today don’t have 40-year inspections at all? The fact is, preventing further tragedies will necessitate tighter condominium inspection laws at the state level. For if history is any guide, some local governments will pass measures to inspect their old buildings, while others, who’ve fallen prey to the lure of development dollars, will not.