A condo building couldn’t collapse in NYC. Or could it?


Basement leaks and cracks. Faulty mechanical and electrical systems. Porous roofs and crumbling facades.

You name it, Howard Zimmerman has probably seen it.

A specialist in diagnosing the ailments of New York City’s aging buildings, Zimmerman fields requests from condominiums and cooperatives for his take on what should be done. But often, his recommendations disappear into the void of boardroom bureaucracy.

“I would say two of three reports are shelved,” the architect said. “They don’t want to deal with it or the report goes in a drawer and waits for the next administration to come, like politics.”

In some extreme cases, boards have told him, “Take these reports back.”

“That’s rare, but it’s happened several times,” said Zimmerman. “[They] were looking for deniability.”

The tragic collapse of a condo tower in Surfside, Florida, last month has drawn attention to boards’ decision-making and government oversight of building conditions.

As a construction or registered design professional, Zimmerman is obligated to report unsafe or illegal conditions to the city’s Department of Buildings. But usually the problems are not pressing, leaving nothing for his firm to do but leave the board to its own devices.

While board members are duty-bound to ensure their building is properly maintained, they are volunteers, often with no qualifications to serve besides living there.

When pricey repairs are recommended by an architect or engineer, the board has three options: dip into the building’s reserve fund, replenished by monthly charges paid by unit owners; take out a loan; or levy an assessment on all owners in the building. Generally, the board recommends an action and asks a majority of residents to approve it.

Safety is not the only factor considered. Residents’ ability and willingness to pay for repairs plays a big role in determining which option, if any, boards opt to do. Boards face pressure to keep costs down, according to lawyers who work with them, and that often clashes with their responsibility to maintain the building.