AUSTIN (KXAN) — Denise Mahoney worries what happened in Miami could happen in Austin.
“I question the structural integrity of the building,” Mahoney said, standing under a section of a collapsed ceiling, when asked if she felt safe at her north Austin apartment complex.
Six weeks after a 12-story beachfront condo collapsed in Surfside, Florida, investigators are still working to figure out what happened, why it happened, and how to prevent another disaster. Last week, the final victim was identified, bringing the death toll to 98.
While there are still many unanswered questions, it’s clear there were warning signs. A 2018 report found major structural damage to the concrete. A KXAN investigation found there are no nationwide standards for how often residential properties are inspected, if at all. For condos, elected boards often made up of volunteers with no engineering experience are tasked with critical decisions about what structural repairs need to be made and when.
In Austin, a city with exploding growth, the process for finding and fixing safety issues is to take a “reactive” approach.
Mahoney reached out to KXAN desperate for help. At her apartment complex, she points out damage that hasn’t been repaired despite complaints to management: cracked staircases and floors, rotting wood, and caved-in ceilings, which she says is the result of a water leak.
KXAN is not naming Mahoney’s property because there are no open code violations and the property is not currently under investigation.
“That’s very concerning given what happened in Florida with the building collapse,” she told KXAN investigator Matt Grant. “They had rebar that was rusted and concrete cracking. Well, we have the same thing here.”
“How often does the city come out and hold the property managers accountable?” she asked in frustration.
She’s not the only one asking.
Lessons from Miami
In Miami, residential buildings are required to be recertified, or given an all-clear, from a licensed architect or engineer after 40 years. After that, it must be inspected again every 10 years.
The rule was created after a Drug Enforcement Administration office building collapsed in the city in 1974, killing seven people and injuring at least a dozen others.
“I was making a delivery and the building just crumbled, it just crumbled, just came down,” an injured man, lying on the ground with his shirt open, told a news reporter at the time. “It just collapsed, just come falling, it didn’t give no warning whatsoever.”
“Any buildings that were not maintained, or not taken care of, could be compromised in 40 years,” said Miami structural engineer John Pistorino, who was a consultant for Miami-Dade county at the time.
Pistorino investigated the DEA collapse. He says he discovered deteriorated concrete, cosmetic repairs and a building that was not properly maintained. The cause was blamed on an overloaded parking garage filled with seized cars from drug dealers. It was Pistorino who came up with the idea for a mandatory 40-year inspection requirement because that was the approximate age of the building when it collapsed. Other cities have also adopted that requirement.
While Florida’s coastal climates and salt air can be especially corrosive to concrete and steel, Pistorino says proactive inspections are necessary even beyond Miami.
“These buildings should last over 100 years if they’re taken care of,” he said. “But they have to be taken care of from day one.”
“I think it applies everywhere,” he added, referring to the need for proactive inspections.
It does not apply in Austin
A ‘reactive approach’
In Austin, El Paso, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Plano, code enforcement will only initiate an inspection at an apartment complex after a complaint is filed with the city, a KXAN investigation found.
In Austin, tenants must first call 311.
“What happened in Surfside, Florida, could happen anywhere,” said Austin Code Department supervisor Matthew Noriega.
Despite that warning, he says the city has decided to take a reactive approach when it comes to inspections.
“We will go out to an inspection if a complaint is called in,” Noriega said.
Other cities are more proactive, KXAN found. Arlington inspects residential properties annually. Dallas does it every three years. Houston — which specifically checks to see if buildings are at “a significant risk of structural failure” — checks every four.
“Do you think there should be a different approach or do you think the current one is working?” asked Grant.
“We currently are reactive, so that’s how we address the issues,” Noriega replied. “If there’s a requirement that we go proactive, that’s something I can’t address.”
While rare, Austin has had several high-profile problems over the past decade when it comes to building safety. In 2010, a balcony collapsed at the Garden Court Condos sending two dozen people to the hospital; in 2011, there was falling glass at the W Hotel and Residences; and in 2015, falling concrete from a balcony at the Austonian that almost hit someone. An engineering firm later blamed “defective work.”
Austin’s reactive approach was criticized in a 2013 University of Texas School of Law report, which found issues identifying problems at properties across the city. The report cites a 2012 walkway collapse at the Wood Ridge Apartments, which displaced more than 150 people. After the collapse, the code department found other walkways that were “substandard” and in “imminent danger of collapsing.”
The report found the code department visited the complex more than 30 times in the two years prior to the collapse. However, they never bothered to check the walkways “because none of the [tenant] complaints [to the city] pertained to the walkways,” the report found.
At the time, Councilmember Kathie Tovo proposed periodic inspections for all rental properties in targeted areas. Critics said the idea was unnecessary and would cost taxpayers too much money. Tovo’s proposal didn’t pass but the city ultimately adopted a “repeat offender program.” Properties with multiple code violations are required to register with the city and are inspected annually, without tenants needing to call 311 first. If problems aren’t fixed, owners can be fined and barred from leasing vacant units.
“We do proactive inspections,” said Noriega, referring to that program. “We do yearly inspections ensuring that the structures are safe, taking a look at not just at the structures, the exterior of the building, the inside, to make sure the building is livable.”
Today, Tovo says it’s again time to rethink the city’s reactive approach to inspections. That could include giving aging buildings a closer look and expanding resources to support those efforts.
“It would almost certainly require additional staffing,” she said, “which is an expense that the taxpayers would then have to bear.”
Tovo says council has not discussed what happened in Miami or what changes, if any, should be made in Austin.
“I’m looking forward to engaging my colleagues in just that discussion,” she said.
While the issue is likely to come up at a future council meeting, the International Code Council plans to meet this month in the wake of the Miami collapse. The ICC, which develops the most widely-used set of building safety codes and standards in the world, could recommend more frequent inspections of residential properties.
“We emphasize to all communities the importance of adopting modern building codes,” said Whitney Doll, the ICC executive vice president of communications and strategic initiatives, “and stress the critical importance of continued inspection and enforcement to keep buildings and their occupants safe and healthy.”
The ICC is expected to meet this month and could recommend more frequent inspections.
Austin’s building official is very interested in the ICC’s statement to KXAN that “continued inspection[s]” are of “critical importance.”
“We do look forward to participating in those conversations and discussing those items with policymakers as well as other building officials,” said Beth Culver, who is responsible for the enforcement of building and construction codes throughout the city.
In Austin, Culver’s team at the Development Services Department makes sure buildings are safe before a nail is ever hammered into place. They work with developers on the front-end from the design phase through construction. Culver will be paying close attention to any recommendations the ICC makes and says the tragedy that happened in Florida could change how and when buildings are inspected in the future.
“That’s something that we will be looking at very closely,” she said. “Ultimately, our goal is to ensure building safety.”
KXAN put together an interactive map so you can see the properties the city’s keeping tabs on. This is a list of the residential buildings currently on the “repeat offender” list. The top 10 — some with more than 500 active violations — are in red. The most common violations, code officials say, are for deteriorated handrails, stairwells and roofing issues.
The city also has its own map.
Between July 26, 2016 and July 26, 2021, code enforcement conducted 147,239 residential inspections. Out of those, 13,108 code violations were issued, officials said.
There is an estimated 207,197 apartment units in the city as of December 2020, according to the National Apartment Association.
The Development Services Department, which inspects properties from design through construction, conducted the following residential and commercial building inspections over the past several years:
- 2021 YTD: 71,605
- 2020: 109,341
- 2019: 108,208
- 2018: 104,589
KXAN showed a photo of the collapsed ceiling at Mahoney’s apartment complex to Noriega.
“Yes, that is something that needs to be called in,” Noriega told Grant. “It is a concern. It’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Back at Mahoney’s apartment, she is pointing out cracks in the floor and stairs.
“They covered these cracks with rubber sealant,” she said.
Until KXAN told her, Mahoney wasn’t aware that in order to get code enforcement to take a look, someone in her building has to call 311 to file a complaint with the city.
“That’s shocking,” she said. “I had no idea that you had to initiate that yourself.”
She worries putting the responsibility to report on the resident might mean some problems will go uninspected. Indeed, the UT report found complaint-driven systems often under identifies serious, and in some cases life-threatening, code violations. This is due to fear of retaliation or not knowing about the process to report problems, the report found, which can impact vulnerable and low-income tenants the most.
“It’s sad,” said Mahoney. “I shouldn’t be the one trying to ensure the safety of the residents.”
Senior Investigative Producer & Digital Reporter David Barer, Photojournalist Ben Friberg, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Director Kate Winkle and Graphic Artist Jeffrey Wright contributed to this report.