There’s been an increase in homeowner association boards, residents and potential buyers asking about the finances and safety of their own buildings. And some people are wondering whether California should consider inspections of older high rises.
The iconic 16-story Marina City Club Towers overlooking the harbor at Marina del Rey on Thursday, July 8, 2021. L.A. County building inspectors did a visual review — and found the buildings to be structurally sound — after residents expressed fears their complex has some of the same flaws found at the collapsed Champlain Towers in Surfside, Fla. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
When Teri Hirano read the news about the collapse of the Champlain Towers condominiums in Surfside, Fla., “an alarm went off.”
Hirano and neighbors have been complaining for years about the condition of their own complex here in Southern California, the iconic 16-story Marina City Club Towers overlooking the harbor at Marina del Rey.
Like the Champlain Towers, the Marina City Club is an aging structure at the water’s edge. Like the Champlain Towers, it has a long list of needed repairs, with one consultant estimating the cost of refurbishment at $80 million to $140 million.
But perhaps the similarities end there. After making a visual review of the marina towers on July 1, Los Angeles County inspectors said there’s no imminent danger of collapse.
Still, the alarm sounded over the Marina del Rey buildings may be symptomatic of the jitters reverberating not just through Florida’s condo communities, but all the way across the country to Southern California.
L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn called the Florida tragedy “a wake-up call.” She introduced a motion for next Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting calling for a plan to assess all the high rises in unincorporated L.A. County.
Condo management companies and homeowner association attorneys have been abuzz about the ramifications of the tragedy for HOAs across the nation. There’s been an increase in HOA boards, residents and potential buyers asking about the finances and safety of their own buildings. And some people are wondering if California should consider inspections of older high-rises.
“It will definitely send shockwaves,” said Tom Freeley, president and chief executive of the California Association of Community Managers, which represents firms managing condo complexes. “This will have an effect on many, if not all, mid- to high-rises as well as many smaller buildings that have balconies.”
To be sure, the level of alarm is more muted in California than in South Florida, where authorities are preparing a round of mass inspections and already have ordered the evacuation of a second residential tower in North Miami Beach.
“It’s unprecedented for us to see what happened in Florida,” said Robert Nordlund, founder and CEO of Association Reserves, a Westlake Village company that helps U.S. homeowner associations determine how much of a reserve to set aside for maintenance emergencies. “Buildings in the U.S. just don’t fall down.”
Inspections not required
About two-thirds of the 54,782 homeowner association complexes in California were 21 years old or older as of 2020, according to figures by the San Francisco CPA firm Levy, Erlanger & Company LLP.
The proportion of older buildings is about the same for Southern California’s 25,389 HOAs and the Bay Area’s 12,453. About half of the HOAs in California manage condominium complexes, with the balance managing mostly single-family communities.
Yet, apart from new laws requiring inspections of elevated wooden balconies and decks every nine years, California doesn’t have a requirement like South Florida’s recertification of 40-year-old buildings. The rule adopted by Dade and Broward counties requires structural and electrical inspections to ensure older buildings are sound.
In California, there’s no legal mechanism for city, county or state governments to review the structural worthiness of high-rises as they age, officials interviewed said.
“There’s no legislation — state or city — that would authorize us to do that,” said Jesse Cardoza, building and safety manager for the city of Irvine. “Honestly, I’m surprised we don’t have that, given that we lead the country in building code requirements because of earthquakes.”
Other than mandatory seismic upgrades, there is little in the way of mandatory reinspection once a certificate of occupancy has been issued, added Thomas Sabol, a UCLA adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering.
Firefighters look over the rubble that was at one time the Northridge Meadows three-story apartment complex. The apartments were home to more than 400 people, sixteen were killed as the first floor collapsed in the violent shaking. The death toll at the complex was more than 25 percent of the total fatalities of the entire quake. (Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
The cities of Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Santa Monica, for example, require upgrades for “non-ductile” concrete buildings and “soft-story” construction, where the ground floor has large open areas for parking or shop windows.
“I haven’t seen many examples of significant structural damage or distress in the absence of an outside cause (e.g., an earthquake),” Sabol said. “But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
City inspectors do visit high-rises when inspecting remodeling jobs and tenant improvements, giving them a chance to spot glaring problems, Cardoza said. Fire departments also regularly inspect high-rises to ensure they conform with fire safety codes.
Local building inspectors also can act if notified of a life-threatening issue, said Redondo Beach Chief Building Official Michael Ross. They could require maintenance work or even red tag a building if it’s unsafe.
“I’m not going to close a blind eye to someone who is reaching out saying there’s a problem,” Ross said.
Building safety problems are not as rare in California as people might want to believe.
About a decade ago, worried residents summoned Henry M. Koffman to look at their aging building in Westwood, which — like the Champlain Towers — had a swimming pool over a two-level garage. There were structural cracks.
“It was leaking, buckets all over the place,” said Koffman, a professor at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering.
Koffman told the homeowners association the situation was dire and the pool and garage needed about $10 million to $12 million of work. The homeowners balked. Many in the building lived on Social Security and couldn’t afford a $100,000 special assessment per unit, they told him.
But unlike the situation in Florida — where the condo board debated suggested repairs for three years — Koffman convinced them the improvements were essential for the preservation of life and limb.
King Harbor parking lot in Redondo Beach cracked after Northridge Earthquake. (Daily Breeze/SCNG)
In Redondo Beach, three parking structures on the pier also raised concerns in recent years. The north building is nearly 60 years old and close to the end of its useful lifespan, according to a 2013 report by Walker Parking Consultants/Engineers. The report found pieces of concrete were flaking off, exposing rusted rebar to the elements.
The city spent more than $4 million on the pier parking structures since 2017, adding roughly 10 more years to the parking garage’s useful lifespan.
A recent study by the Community Association Institute found condo associations should do regular inspections of older buildings.
“As associations start hitting the 30-year, 40-year, 50-year mark, they should anticipate failures (and) large expenses,” Adrian Adams, a Los Angeles attorney who served on the study task force, said in a YouTube video about the findings.
Yet, Nordlund — another task force member — doesn’t support adopting South Florida’s 40-year recertification requirement here in California. Inspections should be voluntary, not mandatory, he said.
“It’s a good practice to encourage,” he said. “I just don’t want legislators to overreact.”
‘A little anxious’
Most condo complexes are ill-prepared for maintenance emergencies.
Just three in 10 HOAs in the nation have at least 70% or more of the amount needed in their reserve funds, Nordlund said. About an equal number have less than 30% in their reserve.
If money isn’t set aside for roof repairs, cracked foundations or leaky pipes, HOAs must rely on high-dollar special assessments, or if they qualify, loans to pay for unexpected repairs.
Nordlund and others in the condo management industry are seeing signs HOAs are “a little more anxious.” Some are asking about the need to review their reserves or for a new safety inspection, he said.
Isaiah Henry, CEO of south Orange County-based Seabreeze Management Co., which manages about 460 homeowner associations in the Southwest, suspects more clients will want to conduct inspections. Seabreeze’s customer service department also has received calls from residents asking about their building’s safety.
“I think (the Florida collapse) is something that shocked our entire industry, shocked our organization to its core,” Henry said.
“Condo Lawyers,” an email chat board for attorneys representing homeowner associations, lit up with comments about the towers collapse, said Kelly Richardson, a Pasadena attorney who writes a column on HOA legal issues for the Southern California News Group and other newspapers.
“This story is extremely concerning to us,” Richardson said. “The kinds of concerns I’ve seen across the country from Massachusetts to California is what is the association’s culpability here? What is the culpability of the directors?”
Motion calls for inspections
Complaints about deferred maintenance have surfaced for years at the Marina City Club towers and apartments, consisting of about 700 units built in the 1970s on county-owned land.
The June 24 tower collapse in Surfside set off alarms among some tenants and owners in the complex, prompting them to alert television news reporters.
“The next day (after the towers collapsed), I was in shock,” said Elena Mondragon, 55, who has owned a two-bedroom condo in the complex’s Center Tower for 20 years. “That’s when I started thinking about what I see here. … There was leaking there before and all these noises, and I said, this is what’s going on here.”
The Marina City Club condominium and apartment complex in Marina del Rey is facing increased structural scrutiny in the wake of the Florida condo collapse. (Image from Google Maps)
In response to resident concerns, Supervisor Hahn and county building inspectors inspected the site July 1.
County Public Works Director Mark Pestrella sent a letter to the complex on Thursday, July 8, ordering operators to have a qualified engineering firm “conduct a thorough inspection and analysis of all structural components” of the complex within 90 days. Pestrella also ordered the complex to undertake a series of repairs, including replacing steel angles and bolts in a parking garage, replacing aging pipes, replacing damaged waterproofing and halting a car wash operation above a parking structure to eliminate water intrusion.
But the county’s visual inspection “did not make any findings that would necessitate emergency action at this time,” Pestrella said.
Meanwhile, the Marina City Club review could be just the beginning.
Hahn’s motion, set for Board of Supervisors review Tuesday, July 13, calls for structural engineering inspections for other aging towers in the Marina Del Rey area and for staff to compile a list of older high rises throughout unincorporated L.A. County. The motion also asks county officials to explore the feasibility of a certification inspection program — possibly in conjunction with the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach — for all older high-rises.
“After the disaster in Surfside, we need to do assessments of high-rises in unincorporated L.A. County,” Hahn tweeted recently. “(We need to) make sure a similar tragedy doesn’t happen here.”