Surfside, Florida, condo collapse a product of capitalism’s systemic flaws

The partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building in Surfside, Florida last week has left at least 12 dead. Search and rescue efforts are underway for almost 150 people still unaccounted for. The collapse occurred on the morning of June 24, and horrific video shows the 12-story structure crumble to the ground in a matter of seconds. As more details emerge, the story of the South Florida condo collapse is beginning to reveal a broader picture of the systemic and fatal flaws currently existing in housing and infrastructure under the capitalist system.

The Champlain Towers South condo building was built in 1981. In 2018, three years before the building’s required 40-year review, a construction firm inspected the building and told the owners of the condo units that there was “major structural damage.” The construction firm submitted a report to the city of Surfside noting “failed waterproofing” of the structure. After the report was issued, a city official assured residents that the building was “in very good shape.” (Miami Herald)

Just days before the collapse, a maintenance worker documented standing water in the basement along with a cracked concrete slab and corroded rebar. No official cause of the collapse has been declared; however these structural issues may well be contributing factors. The effects of the changing climate may have also contributed to the weakening of the building and its collapse. According to a 2020 study by a professor at Florida International University, the condo had been sinking into the earth since the 1990s. Inclement weather, worsened by climate change, continues to impact the Florida coast, hampering the ongoing rescue operations.

This disaster could have been prevented. There was ample time and opportunity to make sure the necessary repairs were made and that the Surfside condos never collapsed. Many of the condo unit owners and residents expressed their concerns about the building’s decaying infrastructure, including cracks and leaks. They were proactive in starting the 40-year review three years in advance.

But the 2018 review stated that building repairs would cost an estimated $9 million (Miami Herald), meaning that repairs could have cost upwards of $100,000 per unit. Because we live in a society where housing is not a guaranteed right to all people, the homeowners themselves would have been forced to bear the burden of this incredibly difficult economic ultimatum.

A closer look at infrastructure

The tragedy in Surfside occurred as lawmakers in Washington are engaging in debate over the state of the country’s infrastructure. While Congress and President Biden go back and forth over a proposed infrastructure plan, the effects of decades of deregulation and neglect beginning in the Reagan era are becoming more apparent.

In addition to the Champlain Towers South, constructed in 1981, a pedestrian bridge also collapsed last week on a major highway in Washington, D.C. But the proposed infrastructure bill is still in the works. But it has been stripped of most of its progressive policies as the Democratic party continues to make concessions to the right, It essentially amounts to government subsidies for major corporations.

The problems are systemic

The collapse of Champlain Towers South evokes traumatizing memories of another tragedy in a residential high-rise that took place in 2017: the Grenfell Tower fire in London. That fire took the lives of 72 people. When residents of the apartment building complained for years about the lack of fire escapes and sprinklers, landlords ignored their concerns. When the tower was refurbished in 2016, contractors chose to use a combustible cladding and insulation because it was cheaper than non-combustible alternatives. This decision resulted in the rapid spread of the fire and the massive (but preventable) loss of life. Still, years later, the same material that doomed Grenfell Tower is present in over 200 buildings in London.

However, what happened at Grenfell is different in some significant ways from what happened at Champlain Towers South. At Grenfell, residents were the victims of landlords who outright ignored their tenants’ concerns and cut renovation costs to make larger profits. But at Champlain Towers, residents were the victims of a system that fails to provide safe and affordable housing as a right.

In Miami-Dade county alone, where the condos are located, 24 other condominium and apartment buildings failed to meet safety requirements, according to a recent audit. According to the county’s housing director, many of the complexes have been forced into taking dangerous cost-cutting measures because the county is not receiving sufficient funding from the federal government for public housing. The very fact that people must make these kinds of decisions, between saving money and saving lives, is part of the twisted logic of the capitalist system.

How to avert future tragedy: Change the system

The lack of proper maintenance of housing and infrastructure is a direct result of the privately-owned, profit-driven capitalist control of society. Millions of lives are in jeopardy at any given moment all across the country because of this greed and neglect. Lack of government oversight and accountability in both the public and private sector has disastrous consequences.

It is becoming clear that we need a new system, one that puts people before profit; a socialist system. We need a system that puts public need before corporate greed and guarantee decent housing for all as a basic human right. Instead of patching together and repairing a decaying system, we need to rebuild our society altogether, from the foundation up. As long as housing and major parts of the nation’s infrastructure remain in the hands of a class of private owners, as long as tenants and homeowners are forced into difficult economic decisions, it is only a matter of time before the next tragedy occurs.

Feature photo: Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department Twitter feed.

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