The word “dire” has been used in recent weeks to describe the condition of the Santa Clara Condominium building at 3312 Northside Dr., Key West.
As the Keys Weekly reported on Sept. 2, Key West’s chief building official Raj Ramsingh has scheduled a Sept. 13 condemnation hearing for Santa Clara Condominiums. Ramsingh’s petition to declare the building unsafe and unfit for human habitation outlines serious concerns about the roof, an unsafe stairwell, uneven weight loads on floors and ceilings, significant spalling, concrete cracks and a laundry room ceiling upheld by steel support braces meant to be temporary.
“The structure has been found to be in a dilapidated, unsanitary, uninhabitable or unsafe condition,” states a city press release about the condemnation hearing. “At the hearing, the chief building official will hear evidence and will determine whether or not the property will be condemned and/or any other legal measures deemed appropriate. Since the Surfside Condo collapse just outside of Miami, the City has been working to ensure that structures in Key West are not unsafe.”
“I do not want to condemn this building, as it would necessarily displace so many residents, but if I have to, I will,” Ramsingh had previously written to the Santa Clara condominium association board members on Aug. 27.
The vice president of the condo board on Wednesday, Sept. 1, told the Keys Weekly the property’s management company, ICAMCO, had failed to complete, or had delayed repairs that had been approved and prioritized by the board.
ICAMCO, which had managed the Santa Clara property since 2007, terminated its management contract with the condominium association on Wednesday, Sept. 1. ICAMCO representatives initially declined to comment to the Keys Weekly.
But on Thursday, Sept. 2, the day after the company terminated its management contract with Santa Clara, ICAMCO president Peter E. Batty contacted the Keys Weekly to “set some of this straight.”
“We couldn’t speak until we terminated our contract with Santa Clara,” Batty told the Keys Weekly on Thursday, Sept. 2. “Until then, we had a fiduciary responsibility to our clients, which we take very seriously, just as the condominium association board also has a fiduciary responsibility to the owners of those units.”
“We have literally begged the board to pass a special assessment and get some money in the bank to fund some of these major repairs since Hurricane Irma in 2017,” Batty said, adding that until 2017, the board had been completing major repairs each year. (A special assessment is a financial assessment levied over and above an association’s annual budget that a unit owner must pay in addition to their regular assessments.)
Condo association fees at Santa Clara range from about $550 to $860 per month, based on the size of a unit. In order to complete the estimated $8.8 million to $10 million of needed repairs, a special assessment, if enacted by the condo board, would likely double those monthly fees for the foreseeable future to help pay off a bank loan to fund the repairs. Of the 111 units at Santa Clara, Batty estimated that about half are owner-occupied, while the other half are owned by out-of-town landlords who rent the condos long-term to local workers and residents. Short-term, weekly, or transient rentals are not permitted at Santa Clara.
“But after 2017, those major annual repairs all stopped,” Batty told the Keys Weekly. “The board was waiting on an Irma insurance claim that wasn’t going to come because the issues were pre-existing and not related to the storm.”
“I believe in my heart of hearts that the issue is bad concrete in that building,” Batty said, adding that roof repairs following Hurricane Irma had to be halted when workers began pulling out chunks of concrete as they removed the old roof. “The roofer said he couldn’t put on a new roof without ensuring the concrete is sufficiently strong.”
Condo board member and longtime Santa Clara owner Peter Horton agreed, saying at an Aug. 19 Zoom meeting of about 60 owners and association board members, which the Keys Weekly has viewed, “This building has had concrete and steel problems since it was finished in 1980.”
“We notified [the association board] of the severity of the situation and the needed repairs months before [the city’s chief building official] Raj Ramsingh was ever on site, and we have done so for years,” Batty told the Keys Weekly, adding, “Remember, we are not the owners; we work at the discretion of the board.”
Batty told the Keys Weekly, “I will bet my reputation on the fact that what [the board vice president] was referring to when he speaks of ICAMCO having delayed certain projects, is actually the fact that they don’t have the money to finish the projects, specifically the roof….This was clearly an opportunity to try and place blame elsewhere.
“We don’t have the ability to expedite repairs. That can only come from the board taking action to instruct us to do so,” Batty said. “We do not have the authority to contact vendors and negotiate terms, or contracts. We only do as the board instructs us.”
“Safety has always been our number-one priority,” Batty said, adding that ICAMCO staff posted the city’s Sept. 1 petition to declare the building unsafe on the front door of Santa Clara when the board president wasn’t going to share it with owners or tenants. “We indicated in our letter terminating our management agreement that we were still willing to help Santa Clara navigate this process, but the board asked us not to attend their most recent meeting.”
At the Aug. 19 Zoom meeting of owners and board members, ICAMCO property manager Daniel Garcia repeatedly urged the condo board to pass a special assessment immediately.
“My honest opinion is even if a bank were to write you a loan check tomorrow, I think you need to pass a special assessment now to show there’s boots on the ground and that you’re raising money now to get these priority repairs started,” Garcia told the board members and other owners who were on the Aug. 19 Zoom call. “I believe you need to be proactive. You don’t need the city coming at you saying, ‘You’re not moving fast enough — everybody get out.’”
After more than an hour of discussion at that meeting, the board still did not pass a special assessment, Batty emphasized, saying the board would rather pursue a bank loan. “But we’ve repeatedly advised them that a bank, before approving a loan, will want to see that a special assessment is already in place” so the bank has an assurance of how the loan will be repaid.
Santa Clara condominium owner Keith Kline shared his thoughts about the current situation to his fellow unit owners on Saturday, Sept. 4:
“Good morning, fellow unit owners and residents, my name is Keith Kline. I have owned #716 since 2014. Like so many of you, I’m trying to make sense and stay abreast of what is happening. … The fingers are pointing, the blame is flying, all manner of actions to take are being discussed. To be sure, all of it matters.
“Firstly, I’ll say this, I always disregarded the letter saying it was ‘time to vote for the board members.’ Busy, commitments, whatever. We voted the board in. We have to accept some responsibility. We live here.
“Having said that, this board is clearly in breach of its fiduciary responsibilities so much so it borders on criminal negligence. As horrific as that sounds, with the pending condemnation of our homes hanging over our head, that is a matter for later.
“Currently our only priority should be prevailing at the hearing on 9/13. To do this the Board must present a plan that has funding, and a serious timetable to address the construction priorities. As unfortunate as it sounds, this means a special assessment and quickly. We can debate the merits of all manner of courses of action. If the city decides to proceed, 250-300 people are out on the street.
“…To suggest [ICAMCO] terminated its contract out of ‘guilt’ makes little sense. Just leaving doesn’t mean you can hide that you did something.
“I believe they left because their advice went unheeded over and over. The former engineer for the building and the city are all doing the same thing, covering themselves. The Board chose to continue to avoid the inevitable. Whether it was to protect cash flow or just good intentions, we live in a building barely a mile from the ocean, concrete maintenance and putting off assessments is what has us here now.
“Selling the building and land? This is a non-starter, as every owner would have to agree on all the terms.
“Previous permits, financial impropriety? If you believe it should be looked at, so be it.
“Our priority should be being able to stay in our homes, getting the assessment/financing or whatever in place and getting work started or at least a timetable that satisfies the city.
“They do not want to condemn the building, but they will.
“…Thank you to all for being involved. I will even say thank you to the Board for their service, but they should have listened and should now put pride aside and get this done.
Thank you for your consideration, Keith.”