Condo Culture: How Florida Became Floridastan

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Welcome to Griftopia. The Florida housing industry needs a karmic rebalancing. Our recent roar of building new structures is echoed today by the squeaks and pops of a different type of construction industry. Invasive testing – the architectural equivalent of a biopsy – seems to be on the rise. Saws, hammers, and cranes can be heard through the quiet suburban developments and subdivisions around Florida, as shingles and stucco are cut off in small patches to reveal serious problems within.

Like the hidden defects in mortgage-backed securities and other arcane instruments of finance, these flaws are covered up and papered over, but are no less damaging. They are also just as revealing about our collective haste to accommodate growth.

Few other places saw as much suburban expansion as Florida did, beginning in the 1990s and lasting right up until the bursting of the 2008 real estate bubble. Old hands in the Florida real estate development game see the cycle as never-ending, stretching all the way back to Ponce de Leon, whose “fountain of youth” was perhaps the state’s first marketing gimmick. The most recent bust, however, provides important lessons, should future cycles include speculators and regulators alike feeding at the trough. Rapid growth breeds errors, compromises, and sloppiness which have dire, lasting consequences.

Pundits are assigning blame for the Millennial Depression up and down the economic ladder, and certainly the Florida housing boom and bust provides many examples of all that went wrong. The largest developers, driven by stockholders and Wall Street to seek rapid growth and high profits, gambled that Florida’s population boom would last forever. With the good addresses already taken, “B” properties close to interstates, under flight paths and adjacent to sensitive wetlands began to see activity. Low density reduced the developers' risks and reduced construction costs, as well.

The Florida condominium – outwardly appearing as an apartment complex — was a home ownership product for the masses. As long as the product lasted 30 years (or however long it took to pay off the mortgage), no one much cared about its quality and stability as an asset. Anonymous, stick-built stucco boxes, baking in the Florida sun, seemed the perfect solution to meet the demands of stockholders and investors, and the regulatory pathway was smoothed over to keep the production line rolling.

Immigrants from abroad and from other parts of the country bought their own piece of the American Dream: gated entries, warrens of tight garages, patches of St. Augustine grass, buggy-whip sized oak trees and tightly wrapped stucco and glass boxes. Balconies are common, although the tiny decks and the heat preclude much enjoyment of the outdoors. Designed to prevent neighbors from meeting or children to freely play, these contemporary cracker box condos sullenly sweat in the heat. Still, they gave a much-needed step-up for the vast service workforce looking for a way out of the rental market and into an ownership position, and buyers can perhaps be forgiven for overlooking the cheapness of construction in favor of a new way to prosperity and success.

The demand, however, outstripped the ability to deliver. Design and construction delays simply due to over-commitment and lack of manpower meant that corners were cut, compromises were made, and slop was tolerated. It was as if the investment mania on Wall Street – in journalist Matt Taibbi’s words, “griftopia” – had trickled down to the field superintendents, masons, and framing crews. A collective haste gripped much of the state’s growth industry, haste that is cause for regret today.

A ten-year-old stucco building may look to be in perfectly good shape from the outside. When entering the bland, beige entry hall, however, the tang of mold immediately invades one’s nose. Once water has been trapped in a building it breeds a most sinister fungus.

Condominium units that suffer this malady are ascending the legal chain one by one across the girth of the state. First, individual owners collect themselves and confront their homeowner’s association. HOAs bombarded with complaints succumb quickly to “condo chaser” attorneys who promise to split the goodly sums they can rake off the insurance companies that covered the contractors and design professionals involved in the mess. And then, discovery begins.

It takes about a week to vivisect a low-rise building. Ordinarily, the stucco walls are saw-cut down to the bone, and the plaster comes off in a solid sheet, revealing metal strap ties and sheathing tissue within. The sheathing panels themselves are made of glued together wood chips – so-called “oriented strandboard” – only as strong as the glue itself. Removal of the sheathing layer reveals the deep ligaments and structural bones of the building.

Buildings designed in Texas, Ohio, Georgia, and elsewhere populate the Florida landscape. These buildings have almost no roof eave at all, as if the fierce Florida sun didn’t matter. The skin-tight stucco may not be Portland cement plaster, because dryvit (an acrylic latex substitute for stucco invented after World War II to quickly rebuild Europe) has become a popular substitute. The windows are set at the outside of the wall, with no shading at all on the glass. The effect is that the building looks as stretched tight as a balloon.

Unfortunately, such a combination frequently admits water into tiny cracks and crevices, and the water has no way to seep out. Revealing the interior guts of a building is the only way to uncork mold and rust horrors that are otherwise invisible. Insidious ants wind their way into the dark spaces between walls and floors where water and food are available.

Biopsies on sick buildings reflect our collective errors of judgment, and the healing process will be lengthy and expensive. Designs that do not reflect the harsh realities of Florida’s hot, wet climate are certainly responsible for some of the errors. Designs that did not acknowledge the scarcity of experienced construction crews were also responsible, because construction takes teamwork and skill. And contractors, encouraged to cut costs in order to boost their own bottom lines, cut time or cut labor to get the job done faster.

Designers and contractors may also legitimately point the finger back at clients who pushed hard. A collective irrationality set in towards the end of the last decade. More work had to be done by fewer people, less experience was available to go around, and in the heat of the moment steps could be skipped in the name of innovation. The consequences are being felt only now.

A huge, sad pile of lost resources, our vanishing wood and raw materials, must be hauled off to clean these errors out of the system. Sadder to see are the homeowners, as they pack up and move out of their mold-infested units. But saddest of all is the apparent inability of the industry to learn from its own mistakes.

Let’s hope that this time around it can happen differently. Reject growth for growth’s sake. Florida, hooked on this drug for too long, deluded itself into filling up wetlands and paving more and more space.

Instead, as the tide rolls in once again, Florida can make a pact with itself to invest in development, rather than growth. Redeveloping older, inner cores of cities where services and employment are already in place can go a longer way towards making the state a sustainable, diverse place to live than paving one more tract of raw land mowed down for home lots can.

Revamp the state’s development culture. Private developers have written Florida’s growth management code, and gradually increased the requirements so that only the largest and most deep-pocketed developers can compete. Protecting neither the environment nor quality of life very well, the development regulations are in dire need of rewriting, with a different set of requirements that favor smaller-scale development and redevelopment, and encourage affordability.

In the meantime, discovery continues. More leaky roofs, more fungus-infested units, and more attics seething with ants, testimony to our collective haste and greed. As the nation slowly recovers economically, Florida has paused for breath on the pathway to healthy construction. Before the next boom, its development industry would be wise to use this break in the action to consider the alternatives.

Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.

Photo by the author.