Lessons from the Florida condo collapse

When the news of the Florida building collapse first hit Twitter, someone I follow avidly (he’s brilliant) questioned whether the cause was a bomb. (The past years since the 2016 election, with the pandemic topping off the extended nightmare atmosphere, has caused even rational people to be occasionally paranoid.) I replied, “I’d think weak building codes.”

I was more or less right.

I live next to an awful instance of what happens when engineers inspecting buildings warn of problems, as they did in Miami, but are ignored until building owners or management find it convenient to pay attention. What occurred in New York, in my neighborhood, became one of my lessons about the salient purpose of government: to protect and advance the well-being of all people equally.

Throughout the city, lots of our older buildings have marvelous ornamentation on their façades. Created by artisans over the past hundred years, they are one reason to wander through the city, looking.

But the ornamentation is not eternal. Just like infrastructure, it requires regular inspection and maintenance. The City Department of Buildings (DoB) performed those inspections and issued notices and warnings about problems.

But the powers of the DoB were limited, as I well knew. When a co-op shareholder installed an illegal gas line through the basement of my previous residence, I called DoB. It took a bit of doing to get him into the basement to inspect. He did issue a warning notice of impropriety but had no authority to demand repair. So I was stuck with an illegal and dangerous gas line until I moved out.

The City has aggressively remedied the gas line inspection problem. Now, living in a well-managed building, I have been the beneficiary (if you’re dark-minded, you might call me a victim) of the remedy.

I once told you about an old friend who complained incessantly about the City’s laws. About how they restricted his freedoms, forced him to do things he didn’t want to do. He moved to Texas and, presumably, took up the “libertarian” war screech: “Get government regulations out of my life!!”

What happened to him? Here’s the link. (As an extra benefit, you’ll get my 2017 rant about Texas, but that’s at the bottom of the post, so you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. But maybe you should.)

The residential building next door has been an assisted living facility for years. One day in the 1990s, a grandmother was sitting on a bench outside the building visiting with her two-year-old granddaughter. A piece of the façade fell off the building and killed the little girl.

Many things happened after that. One was the dreadful information that the DoB had warned the owner several times over the past years of the potential hazard. Warned him as sharply as the DoB was permitted to do.

The owner ignored the warnings.

As a result, there was a massive lawsuit, the owner went to prison, the building ownership changed hands, and the City legislated a serious upgrade to the façade law. Now, buildings over six stories must inspect and repair their exterior walls every five years.

So if you walk through the city now, you will see so much scaffolding you might think the city is re-constructing itself or falling down. No. We’re staying up.

Miami could use New York City as a model for building codes and laws.

In an age of genuinely good government, building flaws would be discovered and repaired before anyone dies.

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