Mayor pushes for state-level building safety reform after Florida disaster

Last week Mayor Justin Wilson shared information on building inspection requirements following the disaster in Florida, but now the city is also pushing for state-level reform on building inspections.

The city’s scope of implementing  building code inspection requirements is bound by the Dillon Rule, which states that localities can only exercise powers expressly granted by the state. On July 8, Wilson sent a letter to Governor Ralph Northam urging him to start the legislative process toward overhauling the state’s barebones inspection requirements.

“In the hours and days after the tragic collapse of the Champlain Towers high-rise condominium in Surfside, Florida, I received numerous questions from residents in Alexandria about building safety in our community,” Wilson said. “As both a historic community and a growing community, the issue of building safety related to older buildings as well as new construction is one of particular interest.”

Wilson noted that there are 57 high-rise buildings in Alexandria that are at least 40 years old, and 51 high-rise buildings without sprinklers — the most of any locality in Virginia. Wilson also noted that a 2007 survey by the Virginia Housing Commission found that Alexandria had the most older high-rise residential buildings in Virginia.

“The City issued a press release communicating information about the Commonwealth’s Uniform Statewide Building Code, inspection requirements for new construction, required periodic inspection of certain systems, and the process for identifying and correcting unsafe buildings and structures,” Wilson said. “We did note, however, that there is currently no requirement in Virginia to proactively or regularly inspect building structure and that a building that has received a certificate of occupancy is only inspected again if there is a change in occupancy or alterations to the building that require inspection.”

Senator Scott Surovell noted on Twitter that Virginia condos are independently inspected every 5 years and repairs are recommended, but those are often ignored by Boards who are given immunity from liability.

Wilson noted that those studies are overseen and implemented by volunteers, not municipal building code officials, and the scope of studies outsourced to third parties is defined by those same Boards.

In the letter to Governor Northam, Wilson suggested slipping language into the American Rescue Plan Act funding to create a workgroup to look at potential changes to the building inspection requirements.

“I am asking that you consider including budget language establishing a work group of stakeholders on the issue of building safety in the Commonwealth in the appropriation bill for the Commonwealth’s tranche of ARPA funds that will be considered at the upcoming Special Session of the General Assembly,” Wilson said. “This workgroup would bring together stakeholders — including localities, building code officials, tenant groups, the development community, staff from the Department of Housing and Community Development and others to review building safety in the Commonwealth and identify legislative and budget proposals for the 2022 session.”

Potential changes Wilson suggested included:

  • New reporting requirements and transparency regarding current structural findings by homeowners and condominium associations
  • New authority for local building code officials to require inspections of buildings and structure in their community
  • A building inspection/recertification process
  • Emergency requirements that existing older buildings have structural assessments done within the next year.

“The tragic collapse of the condo building in Florida is highly unusual,” Wilson said. “There are millions of commercial and residential high-rise buildings in the United States and catastrophic structural failures like the recent disaster are, thankfully, quite rare. However, this is an opportunity for us to consider and revisit the issue of building safety in our communities and identify ways to review and potentially enhance building safety across the Commonwealth.

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