HARRISBURG — The minority chairman of the Senate urban affairs and housing committee said Tuesday he thinks the General Assembly ought to examine what lessons can be taken from the Florida condo collapse.
State Sen. Nikil Saval, D-Philadelphia, said Pennsylvania buildings may not see the exact same sort of stresses as buildings on the coast, but the state’s building stock has its own share of threats that will only worsen as climate change intensifies.
Saval said he thinks it would be appropriate for state lawmakers to examine whether the state should play a greater role in setting the rules for inspections or providing financial support to help renovate buildings in need of structural repair.
“I think it’s totally worth looking at, like how can we update and make our built environment resilient and safe and sustainable even if certainly Florida seems far away,” Saval said.
Reports about the Surfside tragedy indicate there were issues with corroded rebar, cracks in concrete and standing water where the building’s pumps were unable to keep up with the amount of seawater seeping in, he said.
The factors likely at play in the Florida collapse were unlike any that are likely to be seen repeated in Pennsylvania, said Dr. Walt Schneider, a professor at Penn State and chair of the state’s Uniform Construction Code Review and Advisory Committee.
“The building in Florida was built on the coast. So the saltwater, and all that goes with it, is a unique and aggressive environment. So first and foremost, that is a very aggressive environment that we don’t have in Central Pennsylvania,” he said.
In Pennsylvania, the responsibility for enforcement of building codes and inspections of residential complexes like the Champlain Towers South Building that collapsed June 24 in Surfside, Fla., rests with local authorities. By Tuesday, the death toll at the Surfside collapse had reached 32, with as many as 113 people still unaccounted for.
No one has been rescued alive since the first hours after the collapse, which struck early on June 24, when many of the building’s residents were asleep.
Pennsylvania updated its construction codes in 2017. But enforcement of those codes rests almost exclusively with local enforcement officials, said Phyllis Chamber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Housing Alliance.
“Enforcement mostly happens at the local level,” she said, pointing to state data showing that 90 percent of the state’s 2,562 local municipalities either have their own code enforcement official or have a contract for a vendor to provide the service.
Schneider said having inspections conducted by local inspectors shouldn’t be a problem.
They “are all certified to the same level, be it at the state, or at the local level. They’re all required to be certified to the same level,” he said.
Building owners “should be critical of their own buildings,” he said. But if there is a safety concern, tenants should be comfortably contacting the local building code official, he said.
“The building code officials locally know their jurisdiction and know what buildings are there, and many of them tend to be proactive,” he said,
Saval acknowledged that buildings in Pennsylvania are unlikely to have exactly the same sort of stresses faced by condo complexes in Florida, but he said there are other similar reasons to be concerned.
“We’re not in a coastal region, like Florida, we don’t have some of the same things. But one of the takeaways from the climate report that the state put out this year, is that landslides are an increasing risk from climate change,” he said. As the danger from landslides increases in parts of the state, it creates a greater risk that structures could be damaged here, as well, he said.
As of Tuesday, no legislation inspired by the Surfside tragedy or aimed at increasing the scrutiny of condos and residential high-rises in this state, had been announced.
“We should be thinking about that as we think about infrastructure investments this year, and going forward. We have to address the health, safety, habitability concerns, but also sustainability concerns,” he said.
Saval had previously announced a proposal to use American Rescue Plan funding to pay for repairs to family homes.
The 2021-22 state budget signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf spent only about $1 billion of the $7 billion in American Rescue Plan funding allocated to the state.
Saval said he thinks it would “totally appropriate” to consider using some of those rescue plan dollars to help make structural repairs to large residential buildings.
“Whatever is a way to make the building work and plan and make it resilient in the long run. I think you have to be thinking about that, for sure,” he said.
The focus is important because condo complexes and residential buildings that are home to lower-income residents will be less capable of making expensive repairs that may, in turn, make those structures more susceptible to serious structural problems he said.
Saval said he plans to discuss what the Senate urban affairs and housing committee might do in response to the Surfside tragedy with Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana County, the majority chairman of the committee. A spokesman for Pittman didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story on Tuesday.