GL Analysis: Twelve Ways to Fix the Department of Buildings
The Department of Buildings is one of the most vital city agencies after the NYPD and FDNY, yet it is one of the most troubled and its failures are nothing short of a major governmental breakdown. Yes, the department has improved in recent years, but it remains in dire need of radical reform. It is starved for resources in the face of an onslaught of development and in need of a thorough institutional overhaul. We cover the Department's actions (or inaction) every day, so we've put together a list of recommendations that could begin to fix the mess that, in the worst case, endangers people's lives or, in lesser cases, does violence every day to the quality of life of tens of thousands of residents living side-by-side with the building boom (as not all the problems are as dramatic as cranes crashing down on buildings and people). Here they are:
1) Even if the Department of Buildings functioned like a well-oiled machine that rigorously enforced city regulations, its inspectors are still overwhelmed by the level of construction. The number of inspectors should be at least doubled, if not tripled. Until the numbers are increased, there should be a cap on the number of permits for major projects that can be issued.
2) The Department of Buildings should be permanently removed from the purview of any of the city's economic development officials. While it is now under the Deputy Mayor for Operations, it spent most of the Bloomberg Administration under the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. DOB should be an independent regulatory agency whose prime mission is enforcement. Encouraging development and regulating it are not compatible tasks. Its work should be subject to regular audits by the City Comptroller.
3) Each Community Board should have an independent ombudsman to supervise the Department's work. That ombudsman would work to makes sure that citizen complaints are handled in a timely way and that complaints of inaction are investigated.
4) Dramatically increased monetary penalties for violations should be determined by a special blue ribbon commission made up of industry experts and citizens. The penalties should be set so that they act as a strong disincentive to violating regulations. Penalties should increase with each violation and building permits should also be suspended for the most serious violations starting with 30 days and escalating to 60 and 90 days. After repeated violations, permits should be terminated.
5) There should be criminal penalties for both developers and contractors whose actions or negligence result in loss of life.
6) Persistent offenders--contractors and developers--should be put on a special list for highly targeted enforcement and be subject to even higher fines. Firms with a pattern of violations, particularly ones involving safety violations and illegal work should have their ability to work in the city revoked for a period of time. Contractors found doing illegal work should be placed on probation after a certain number of offenses and be barred from doing business for subsequent offenses.
7) Create target enforcement neighborhoods in each borough based on the level of development. In Brooklyn, for instance, Williamsburg and Greenpoint should be a No. 1 priority. These target neighborhoods should be assigned significant numbers of inspectors to increase response times to complaints and to patrol construction sites.
8) The city should make necessary repairs to sites that are shut down if developers don't fix problem quickly, so that abandoned sites don't become hazards to the community. The city should charge back costs to developers and property owners and seize property for unpaid bills.
9) There should be a zero-tolerance approach to violations. Currently, contractors can violate many regulations with virtual impunity. Non-enforcement on small violations leads to bigger violations in a sort of Broken Windows Construction Phenomenon. There should also be 24-hour follow up and immediate dispatch of inspectors on some calls, clearly including life safety issues, but also involving quality of life complaints such as illegal and after-hours construction.
10) Permit fees should increased to fund the entire program of more rigorous inspection and the workforce necessary to do so.
11) Firms with a pattern of violations should be barred from bidding on city contracts or doing city work.
12) The city should issue a monthly "scorecard" in a simple format, grading developers and contractors on their violations or lack of them in each borough.
Do we think any of this will happen? The odds are long, as the Building Industrial Complex is a powerful one, particularly in an era of million dollar one bedroom condos and housing shortage. Then again, given the horror of this past weekend, radical reform of the Department of Buildings could be an issue whose time has come. Even a few of these reforms could result in significant changes.
Labels: Construction Issues