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Insurance rates spike after Florida lawmakers fail to address condo safety

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nearly a year after a residential high-rise building collapsed in Florida, killing 98 people, the state has done nothing to address condo safety. There are more than a million and a half condo units in the state; nearly a million are over 30 years old. And Florida lawmakers and the governor have failed to act, despite promises that they would prevent a condo tower collapse like the one in Surfside. NPR's Greg Allen looks at some of the reasons why.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In Surfside now, there's just a big hole in the ground to mark the place where the Champlain Towers South building stood. Martin Landesfeld's sister and brother-in-law were among those who died there. He was at the scene of the collapse recently to call on Florida's governor and lawmakers to do something to improve condo safety.

MARTIN LANDESFELD: One year later, the new question is when will the next building collapse?

ALLEN: Following the disaster in Surfside, a federal investigation is underway of what caused the collapse of the aging structure. There was also a grand jury investigation and a number of task forces that produced recommendations on how to avoid building collapses in the future. Miami-Dade County is poised to act on some of the recommendations, including recertification for buildings that are 30 years old, instead of the current 40-year requirement. But local officials say action is needed on the state level, to adopt regulations that apply to all condos in Florida. The Republican-led legislature did consider bills that would require condos to undergo safety inspections and to hold financial reserves to fund needed maintenance and repairs. But it adjourned without taking any action. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz blames Governor Ron DeSantis.

DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: Governor DeSantis needs to lead. He needs to get involved in getting this critical issue across the finish line.

ALLEN: DeSantis was active on many other bills before the legislature, on issues involving how race and sexual orientation is taught in the schools, on the shape of new congressional maps and on punishing Disney for opposing his policies. He didn't take a leading role on condo safety legislation but says he supports it.

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RON DESANTIS: We were very receptive. We wanted to be able to sign something that was going to make an impact. But the idea that somehow I was trying to not support it was not true.

ALLEN: Florida's failure to do anything on condo safety following the tragedy in Surfside disappointed many, including Fausto Gomez. He heads a group of nearly three dozen condo associations in Key Biscayne.

FAUSTO GOMEZ: I was surprised that nothing happened, yes. I was very surprised simply for the optics of it.

ALLEN: Gomez's condo is on the top floor of a seven-story building, with a large outdoor patio.

GOMEZ: There's a view of downtown Miami. And there's a view of Biscayne Bay.

ALLEN: Gomes says his building is just 20 years old, but it's already beginning the process of recertifying its safety and structural integrity. That's not because of state or county regulations, but because following the Surfside collapse, the residents of this building wanted it, and insurance companies may demand it. The head of Florida's Association of Insurance Agents, Kyle Ulrich, says insurance companies are now requiring condominium buildings over 15 years old to be recertified before their policies are renewed. And he says the cost of insurance is going up dramatically.

KYLE ULRICH: Almost all associations are getting rate increases at this moment. And I've heard from members that they've been delivering rate increases upwards of 100% to some condominium associations.

ALLEN: Ulrich and others say in some ways it doesn't matter that Florida has failed to adopt new rules on condo safety because the insurance industry is already doing it on its own. Along with steep price increases, many condo associations are now being required to carry out deferred repairs and improvements, costs, Ulrich says, that may be hard on retirees and others on a fixed income.

ULRICH: It's those condominium associations that are going to be in a very difficult spot, having to assess their owners to take care of deferred maintenance and structural issues, while at the same time having a very difficult time finding coverage.

ALLEN: Florida helped pioneer condominium living and is second only to California in the number of total units. With the Surfside tragedy, Florida is now raising new questions about what role the government should play in making sure aging buildings are still safe to live in. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.