Discover more from Diane Francis
July 1, 2021
My guess is that dozens, possibly hundreds, of old concrete condo and rental buildings along, or near, Florida’s coastline, will be condemned, or abandoned because they have fallen into such disrepair that solutions are unaffordable for the owners.
The tragedy in Surfside Florida, where up to 163 innocent people have been entombed in layers of concrete, isn’t a one-off. Florida is the canary in the proverbial coal mine. The state is littered, as are others, with buildings that have never been regulated properly. Their landlords or condo boards of directors have never been required, by law, to conduct regular engineering audits or to set aside reserve funds to pay for proper maintenance or big, predictable expenses like roofs and elevators.
Such safeguards are law in Canada and many countries, but not in America or in most of the Third world. Florida’s absence of housing standards and regulations became obvious to me a few years ago when I was hunting to buy a condo in Fort Lauderdale. I discovered that condo corporations rarely set aside reserves nor did they undertake regular engineering audits. That’s why I didn’t buy there, and that’s why the building in Surfside collapsed. Its board had been warned three years ago (and probably years before) about dangers but opted to keep condo fees low. It ignored red flags, had no cash in reserves, kicked the can down the road, and people died.
Laissez-faire governance is the root cause in this case but is also the culprit behind most of America’s woes. The country is a deregulated, libertarian society where the government is considered, by many, to be the “enemy”. The result is an anything-goes business and governance culture that has spawned wealth for a few but resulted in tragedy for many throughout history. Deregulation is America’s biggest flaw and, counter-intuitively, its greatest competitive disadvantage.
Laws should require regular inspections of buildings. Laws should require boards to collect fees for reserve and emergency purposes. This is not simply a flash of hindsight due to the Surfside calamity, but is common sense and what responsible jurisdictions require.
Given this anything-goes mentality, I can only imagine how decrepit Florida’s aging condo housing stock is, how poorly maintained its landlord-owned rental buildings are, and what dangers lurk in other states. If a structure isn’t tended, then fire alarms, smoke detectors, and fire hazards aren’t either. This places an unknown number of people at risk, making them prey to unscrupulous builders, unethical engineering consultants, stupid local governments, incompetent building managers, and unwitting boards of directors. That’s what killed 163 people in Florida this week.
Deregulation is not only downright dangerous but constitutes dereliction of duty on the part of governments. For instance, Florida law stipulated that engineering inspections be done only after 40 years even though the state’s housing inventory is subjected to sea salt, hurricanes, surges, and tropical deluges regularly. Everyone, with or without an engineering degree, knows that water and extreme weather events are the enemies of concrete.
It wasn’t long ago that America’s biggest deregulation debacle resulted in the economic collapse in 2008-9, triggered after the George W. Bush regime deregulated Wall Street and mortgage brokers and real estate hustlers. That caused another structure — the world’s financial system — to come tumbling down.
Bush’s reckless laissez-faire initiative led to the second Great Depression in history, euphemistically called a Great Recession. Lest we forget, this catastrophe only ended because the world’s governments came to the rescue with monumental infusions of cash that propped up the world’s economy and societies at a cost of tens of trillions of dollars.
Household wealth in the United States fell $14 trillion by the end of the first quarter of 2009, resulting in a decline in consumption, a drop in business investment, foreclosures, and massive job losses. Companies went bust and people lost their homes and declared personal bankruptcy as the economy cratered in the United States and worldwide. The knock-on effects damaged Europe and global banking systems, and emerging economies had to be financially subsidized for years by the world’s richer nations. Millions of lives were ruined, all due to the American cult of deregulation.
Florida is simply the latest shocking example of this failure to govern properly. While hardly the same magnitude as the 2009 disaster, Florida’s condo crisis is far from over and will spread throughout the state. So will concern about inadequate laws across the country. How safe are skylines in American cities? Can we trust that they are “owned” by landlords and/or condo boards who behave responsibly even though they are not legally accountable to do so?
Don’t hold your breath for regulation or legislation anywhere soon, especially in Florida. Its governor is a Donald Trump understudy who legislated to force cruise ships to take on untested, unmasked customers, who rejected mask-wearing or lockdowns, who fights to cut taxes and services, and who supported laws to let people carry their firearms openly. He would regard condo regulations, like masks for medical purposes, as “unAmerican”.
America’s biggest deregulation failure is guns. The open-ended “right” to buy, sell, and use weapons in the country has resulted, in terms of gun deaths, in the equivalent of one Surfside collapse every three days. This doesn’t include gun injuries caused by trigger-happy Americans. Currently, injuries are running at more than twice the death toll and will increase as gun sales soar in the absence of regulations.
America’s dysfunctional and damaging pattern is there for all to observe: Start by letting anyone do anything anytime; then collect the bodies; and finally, do nothing to address the causes of the constant carnage. Like the country’s pandemic of mass murders and homicides, the Florida condo collapse and future ones will only be addressed by litigation, not civilized legislation. This will be a boon to lawyers and also to insurance companies which will simply jack up rates everywhere to cover the cost of paying for the reckless.
Until Americans reject the government-is-the-enemy mindset, calamities that could be avoided will recur. Regulations are not the enemy of the people: They are the enemy of and hated by, America’s elite of rapacious capitalists and corporations who spend millions on lobbyists and buying politicians in order to make tens of billions of dollars building or renting shoddy structures, selling weaponry, despoiling nature, employing illegals instead of Americans, shifting profits to tax havens, creating loopholes to evade taxes at home, and fighting tooth and nail against taxes, thus undermining society’s schools, hospitals, police, firefighters, military, and its crumbling infrastructure.
The fact that America’s democracy is for sale in this way has made it increasingly dangerous to live or work in a high-rise or to go to a mall or a grocery store or a high school or a church or synagogue, if unarmed.
America’s privateers and political patsies bill their efforts as a fight for freedom and liberty. But what’s actually going on is a persistent movement by anarchical elements to destroy governments in order to remove controls of any kind for profit. It’s Darwinian Democracy and capitalism — a version of dog-eat-dog that entirely cedes control to the worst in human nature.
And we all know how that turns out.
My newsletters will arrive in your inbox Monday and Thursday mornings