Last updated: Wednesday, April 19 at 12 p.m.

Tenants in a 16-unit workforce housing complex located at 1655 Overseas Highway in Marathon are still looking for answers after they were ordered to vacate the complex’s four buildings due to a concrete balcony collapse around 4 p.m. on April 15.

According to residents who were home at the time of the collapse, no one was on the balcony at the time it fell, and there were no reported injuries.

Other tenants returned home to find Marathon Fire Rescue and Monroe County Sheriff’s Office personnel as well as city officials informing them of the unsafe buildings. Residents were allowed to collect belongings for the night before vacating the property, with St. Columba Episcopal Church, the building’s owner, providing temporary accommodations and meals for those with nowhere to go.

Though tenants were originally told the hope was to return them to their homes within the next few days, as of Wednesday morning, tenants were still displaced, with no definite date for re-entry.

City of Marathon Building Official Gerard Roussin originally told the Weekly on Saturday that the plan was to temporarily install additional supports on the remaining three balconies in an effort to return tenants to at least 12 of the complex’s units. 

But as City Manager George Garrett confirmed on Tuesday afternoon, upon seeing the condition of the building, the contractor hired to install the additional supports, “got up there and said, ‘Holy (expletive). We’re not comfortable with this,’” a sentiment confirmed by an engineer hired by the contractor.

Since the collapse, several contractors have approached the Weekly. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, all expressed their concerns about the structural integrity of the building reaching back well before the balcony came down.

Garrett and St. Columba’s Rev. Deb Maconaughey confirmed that a second engineer has been hired by the church to conduct a complete Existing Building Recertification (EBR) inspection, with results expected by the end of the week.

As required by an ordinance passed by the city in September 2021 and amended in January 2022, the EBR inspections are required for multistory buildings more than 17 years old. They require an owner to hire state-certified engineers to inspect the building’s structure and electrical systems in an effort to prevent tragedies like Miami’s Surfside condominium collapse in June 2021 that resulted in 98 deaths.

Thus far, the inspections in Marathon have already caused the closure of Mariners Place, a 15-unit apartment building on Coco Plum Dr. built in 1978, along with temporary closures of popular eatery Panda House and a multi-unit commercial building on 53rd Street Ocean housing six small businesses, within the last 14 months.

The city began systematically working through Marathon’s buildings from the east to west end of town to avoid flooding contractors with time-sensitive work, but had not yet reached the area of the apartment complex in question. But such a near miss that very well could have ended in tragedy necessitated the accelerated response for a building constructed in 1954.

“We believe that’s the right thing to do, the safest thing to do from a life safety perspective,” Garrett said.

Though it addresses an obvious threat, the inspection does little to ease the concerns of residents who are unsure whether they will have a home to return to, or any accommodations at all, beyond the end of the week. 

In an email to tenants on April 18, property manager Josh Mothner informed residents that nonprofit KAIR would pay for motel rooms until the morning of April 21 for tenants without other accommodations. April rent was refunded to all tenants, with the option to withdraw their last month’s rent payments and security deposits required upon move-in.

“We understand some may wish to start finding other options. If you choose to move on to something else, we understand,” the email said, while assuring tenants that they would have first right of refusal to their old units if and when repairs are completed.

“We don’t want to have 16 families who are out on the street. But that said, I think that’s the only thing we can do until we have a full report,” Garrett told the Weekly. “We as a city will do whatever we can to help find other residences, assuming the worst case if it goes that way.”

“We’re going day by day,” said Maconaughey, praising the quick response of city officials, especially Roussin, and community members who sprang into action in the immediate aftermath of the collapse. 

“I haven’t slept. … To have your home taken away by something that’s so bizarre is unbelievable. This is real workforce housing that people count on, and we don’t want it to go away.”

Anyone with knowledge of, or an ability to assist with, temporary or long-term housing options for tenants is encouraged to contact the church at 305-743-6412 or [email protected].

Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.