Condo Associations and the Crisis of the Commons

Ideas and Issues

July 1, 2021

New Orleans    

In the wake of the Surfside, Florida condominium collapse, I’ve been waiting for two shoes to fall. One is the tragic death toll that could soar from a dozen to over one-hundred.  The other is the assessment of responsibility, which I feared was collective, no matter how much finger pointing might run in the direction of any city building inspector.

Once upon a time, looking in the 1970s for a way to make ACORN more self-sufficient, I found myself with what turned out to be a thankless project:  reading condominium association bylaws from all around the country.  What one might argue was either my bright or harebrained idea was simple.  We were an organization with a staff of organizers, skilled in leadership development, training, and research.  Condo associations, like ACORN, were volunteer membership-governed organizations.  Yes, they managed property, not direct actions and campaigns, but….maybe there were prospects for us to contract with them to assist in developing their leadership and servicing their membership as well.  In the way that some greater force or providence protects fools and small children, as the saying goes, after some research, a bit of outreach and meetings with some associations, this notion was abandoned.  Simply put, managing property is much different.  We also found this out in spades later in managing our mutual housing associations and housing trusts that faced the same problems both enlivening and confronting our ideology around membership control and management.

For all the dream of home ownership and the trials and tribulations of tenants, property management isn’t a walk in the park.  Taxes rise.  Roofs’ leak.  Trees and their limbs lean and break in weather both fair and foul.  HVAC systems don’t last forever, no matter the maintenance and guarantee.  Wooden structures eventually need painting.  On a personal level, we know this well and perhaps painfully.  I remember when my father planted the two pine saplings in the backyard of their house.  With one leaning over their carport, he didn’t reckon with the $4000 it took to turn them into sawdust.  How many of us really put money aside in savings for the inevitable catastrophes of home ownership?

At Surfside, the reports are that some of the problems had been identified, and work was planned soon, just not soon enough, as it has turned out tragically.  I could see this in reading association bylaws when it came to the issue of assessments.  Sure, it would be great to have our costs rolled into these monthly charges, but when the assessments are shared by hundreds of units and potentially run into the hundreds of thousands, we didn’t want to be within miles of that problem.  We faced the same worries in our mutual housing developments in New York City and elsewhere over common space and collective concerns where money can trump democratic governance easily.

For developers, condos are an easy way to shift the long-term responsibilities and costs of property over to owners, either individually or collectively.  As an individual, you swallow hard, write the check, or sell the property, “as is” or down the road.  As a collective, first you have to agree, and then you have to collect.  Are cities and towns in the wake of Surfside, ready to muscle up and force repairs to be made regardless of the costs or condemn desperately needed multi-union complexes if it doesn’t happen?

The classic essay that spoke of the “tragedy of the commons” is often misunderstood and misconstrued, but the phase still has power, and it’s worth all of us worrying in our own communities how close we may be to similar tragedies, as housing infrastructure also crumbles in the face of collective costs and the ability to shoulder them.