Tens of thousands of people live in the mid- and high-rise buildings that dot Boston’s skyline, but the city and state have few regulations in place to ensure they stay structurally sound, leaving that job instead to the owners themselves.
The state, like several others, only lightly regulates taller residences, requiring occasional checks of a building’s façade and exterior walls to make certain buildings don’t crack or crumble to the ground, experts said.
The collapse of a 12-story oceanfront condo in Florida last month has focused fresh attention on regulations around high-rise residences. In Massachusetts and around the country, experts said, many such buildings — often condominiums — have few mandates when it comes to proactive inspections and having reserve funds on hand for repairs.
“We — we meaning society — don’t generally worry about buildings after they’re up, standing, and in use,” said Donald Dusenberry, a forensic expert in structural engineering. “All good — that’s what we assume.”
Nationally, structural engineers have rushed to reassure Americans since the Surfside collapse that their homes are safe, so long as regular maintenance is done. Regulations around requiring that maintenance, however, vary from state to state, and different parts of the country face different challenges.
The issue is particularly pressing in Boston, which boasts some of the nation’s oldest housing, as well as across the 11,000-plus community associations in Massachusetts that cater to older properties converted into condominiums and newly constructed high-rises.
More and more Bostonians are calling those mid- and high-rise buildings home: More than 300 buildings at least five floors tall are zoned at least partially for residential use, according to a 2020 building inventory from a city website.
Boston’s Inspectional Services Department has said most buildings over 70 feet are required to submit a report every five years detailing the conditions of their exterior walls. (Unoccupied buildings are inspected annually.)
A spokesperson for the city’s Inspectional Services Department said that in addition to the façade inspections, the division also routinely conducts annual life-safety inspections for all hospitals and buildings deemed for K-12 educational use. The division also inspects buildings where construction work is being done.
But aside from those inspections, few mandates exist on requiring routine inspections and upkeep, experts said. Many buildings, once built, become the responsibility of the people who own and live in them — a fact that has come under more scrutiny since the Florida collapse.
“Buildings need maintenance, just like your car needs maintenance — maybe not at the same level, but you have to be attentive,” said Dusenberry. Modern building codes are highly detailed when it comes to construction, he added, and the responsibility for keeping a building in shape largely rests on owners and residents.
For condominiums, Massachusetts requires their associations to keep reasonable reserves for repairs, said Tom Moriarty, president of the Community Associations Institute’s New England chapter. But the state does not define how much money is considered reasonable.
Federal lending programs like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac often require 10 percent in reserves to qualify for mortgages on units to be sold in the secondary market, though that number can still fall short of covering unforeseen costs.
Condos can also conduct studies to assess how long a building’s components should last or are holding up. But those are also not required by the state.
The industry recommends studies about every five years, said Roger Winston, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer specializing in condominiums for Ballard Spahr. But such regular surveys don’t always happen, in part because they can cost tens of thousands of dollars and veer into six figures for invasive testing and for especially large buildings.
That cost can be especially problematic in the case of high-rise condos, which tend to have more complicated structural problems, as well as hundreds of owners, Winston said.
When a person moves into a new single-family home, making repairs — and determining the cost of fixing them — is an individual decision, he said. “Now take that to a condo, multiply it by the cost of the building, multiply it by the number of people being owners of the building. Now a board of directors is saying there’s a problem here. What are they going to do about it? They’re going to be constrained.”
Good property managers routinely have studies done to stay updated on the conditions of their buildings, said Kim Brauer, a senior vice president for the Dartmouth Group, which has about 130 condominium properties in the greater Boston area, including more than a dozen downtown.
But some associations, she said “are not governed by professional property management companies. . . . We’ll take over a property and be shocked that the reserve study is so dated or this or that wasn’t done.”
The Florida tragedy has spurred several condo associations, including some of Brauer’s own, to look at additional analyses “to make sure they didn’t miss anything,” she added. “A couple of my high rises, the day after it happened, said, ‘When’s the last time we had a facade inspection? When’s the last time we had a full structural analysis?’ ”
Battles over condo repairs are not new, particularly in Boston.
In 2007, the then-36-year-old Harbor Towers Condominiums levied $75.6 million in special assessment fees on its unit owners, saying they were necessary to repair significant problems with the buildings’ HVAC systems and other issues. But the assessment — called the highest-ever in the city at the time — triggered a lawsuit and backlash against its board of directors before repairs were eventually made.
But disputes rarely end as tragically as the Florida collapse, where emergency teams are nearly done searching the rubble for victims weeks later.
The cause of the high-profile disaster remains under investigation. A raft of concerning red flags have emerged in the weeks since it occurred.
A three-year-old report from a consultant documented “major structural damage” to the concrete below the pool deck, as well as cracks and crumbling in parts of the parking garage. The board of the condominium building had also been ensnared for years in squabbles over how to get unit owners to pay special assessments, or additional fees, to cover significant repair jobs. Search and rescue teams have found 95 dead, with only a handful still unaccounted for.
Elizabeth Koh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethrkoh.