Getting Answers: Government oversight of building safety in national spotlight | News
HOLYOKE, MA (WGGB/WSHM)–The Surfside Condo collapse in Florida is bringing new attention to how governments oversee building safety.
Many questions are still unanswered about how the multi-story complex was allowed to deteriorate after a hired engineer warned of structural damage in 2018.
However, early reports show town officials did not raise warning flags about the building’s safety in the following three years.
“After listening to all of the reports and stuff it sounded like somebody had been told there was an issue but they didn’t know how immediate it was and it felt like very close to what we had,” said Rebecca KC, a building owner in Holyoke.
Rebecca KC owns a building in Holyoke, right behind where an apartment partially collapsed in 2020. She said watching the tragedy in Florida brought back memories of watching this west street building deteriorate.
“I personally had said ‘hey I’m not sure but I think that doesn’t look right,’ not being like trained in that stuff, and then within two months it did fall down,” said Rebecca.
For years, Holyoke has had its fair share of deteriorating and collapsing buildings throughout the city. A city once built for a bustling population, that’s dwindled in numbers.
“That means there’s infrastructure for a lot more than what we currently have. A lot of these are vacant for that reason,” said Damian Cote, City of Holyoke Building Commissioner.
Holyoke Building Commissioner Damian Cote said for most apartment buildings in the city, inspections occur every five years. But he said when legitimate tips from the public come in about hazards, that prompts more frequent inspections.
“We’ll be in that building every two years or three years depending, as much as every year,” said Cote.
Western Mass News found one of the more problematic buildings in the city is actually a vacant property at 281-283 Main Street.
According to public records we obtained, the city has found multiple hazards on the property and sent multiple notices to the owner in New York.
We tried contacting them too, but they couldn’t be reached by phone.
We went to the property with Cote, who said dangers with the building have persisted for more than five years.
“There’s a partial roof collapse and other issues around the building that it’s clearly not safe for occupancy,” said Cote.
Other buildings in the city, including one on High Street, which posed more danger to the public, are taken down more quickly.
“If it’s bad enough we’ll just demolish the building,” said Cote.
But aside from emergency situations, cote said it can take months to years for the city to gain control of a property that’s falling apart.
“Finding owners, getting contact, so a lot of it is held up by the courts, not to their fault it’s just a process,” Cote said.
Cote said buildings also frequently change ownership without the city being notified.
“So we’re still sending communications to former owners who may be long gone,” Cote said.
Cote said the unpaid taxes on dangerous properties can accumulate so much, that a court-appointed receiver wouldn’t want to pay them.
This building on Main Street is approaching that benchmark.
“… stopped paying taxes a few years ago so the balance is at $30 thousand…this is about to be filed for receivership so we’ll ask our law staff to bring it to court,” Cote said.
We asked Cote about what happened in Surfside, and he has confidence in Massachusetts’ system of maintaining buildings.
“Massachusetts has a pretty strict code system compared to most states,” Cote said.
Still, he said there are strains on the system.
“There’s only 3 building officials and we have 11000 parcels,” Cote said.