Monday, March 17, 2008

GL Analysis: Twelve Ways to Fix the Department of Buildings

[Photo courtesy of EKavet/flickr]

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.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with alot of what you said. Particularly about tripling the number of inspectors. But keep in mind the law of unintended consequences. If you make it more expensive to build in this city then developers will charge more for their product, further driving up prices for housing in this city and widening the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Also, not sure why #7 matters. Each development site is an issue unto itself. WHy does it matter if there are other development sites in the neighborhood? I don't see how that impacts the safety of a particular site.

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree concerning the need for a much higher level of inspection and supervision, and certainly agree that accountability needs to be a priority.

However, in addition to a higher level of safety and accountability for large builders, some of these suggestions would also chase away independent home owners, and make it much more difficult for private citizens to own and improve property in the city.

Seems like most of the ways to increase safety and compliance also promote an only-the-richest-need-apply New York.

11:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1.The top of the list should be the elimination of self-certification for any construction other than 1 or 2-family houses, or at the least, over 5 stories tall. Scarano hasn't lost his license, and what stops him from self-cert filings under another architect working with him?
2.DOB is the also the agency responsible for enforcing zoning law. Why? Their examiners are not zoning experts, and we all know how difficult it is to get a project audited anyway.
3.Let us not delude ourselves that their incompetence is deliberate, to allow oblique pro-developer policy.

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good list.

One thing you didn't know about that is that the inspectors are so corrupt that the DOB has to put out press releases crowing when they manage to nail them in the act.

That's right, they have to celebrate when they can arrest their own people.

So the DOB needs to clean house and start fresh. They need some kind of capital outlay to start training new inspectors with new safeguards and incentives against corruption.

2:46 PM  
Blogger guy2k said...

A very good set of ideas. I called for similar today, but without your fine level of detail.

Alas, without campaign finance reform, I doubt we will be able to get enough developer money out of the system, and so, I doubt we will see the level of reform for which you rightly call.

4:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Get ride of the NYC building code. Oh, and while we're at it, fill in the Gowanus Canal.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually you have a point - Loose Stool.
Why bother with a building code if the only people who are forced to adhere to it are the people who wouldn't think of breaking the law to begin with. We could save millions by by eliminating the useless DOB and any elected or appointed officials who serve no purpose. Just admitting that we live in the wild west and let everyone protect there own property as they see fit.
Better than what we have now - Only the rich can do what ever they want and everyone else has laws to abide by.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You are trying to tackle an issue that is much more complex than what you think. It is also not an apple to apples comparison between terrible brooklyn developers of small projects and this tower crane accident. If you understood the rules better that you would be able to create a better course of action, however you choose not to and yet make a fool of yourself.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm confused.

7:02 PM  
Blogger My2Sense said...

Hey Greg_g,
I think it is you who is making something much more complex than it needs to be.
You would have to be deaf dumb and blind to see that many of the complaints logged against this (and every other site in the city) are legitimate and should be addressed. Instead the DOB puts out boiler plate responses to some very serious issues.
I have a stack of responses from the DOB for complaints logged for a building that was illegally given a C of O on my block and I saw some of the paper work in answer to the complaints logged regarding the Crane that collapsed. It's all boiler plate garbage. You could copy and paste the answers from my complaints to the ones involving the crane or just about any other construction site in the city.In fact, it seems obvious that the DOB has done just that to just about every complaint filed.
Why have laws if they will only be enforced if and when the Mayor says so.
Bottom Line - Don't make excuses for the fact that the DOB and the Mayor are complicit in this crime. They will end up cost us (the tax payers) many hundreds of millions and what will we get in return -
Complicated Excuses.
I have a stack of responses from the DOB for complaints logged

9:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are the odds that 300 feet and 25 tons of steel would go flying across 2 city blocks and only kill 7 people. Only 1 of them not a construction worker involved in the event.
Anyone who doesn't believe in God, may want to rethink his/her opinion.
You can bet Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Lancaster are praying to for some help right now.
They should be thanking there luck stars it wasn't worse

10:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the crane accident was obviously aweful. but we have to look at the facts - from the information thus far, it looks like a freak accident. freak accidents do occur in life and we don't stop all progress because of them. a full investigation will obviously be (and should be) done on this calamity. if there are fingers to be pointed, i'm sure those investigating will err on the side of crucifying those concerned. remember, 115 people die every day in motor vehicle accidents, but we do not stop driving, nor do we ban the driving priveleges or not allow someone to drive to work if they get a speeding ticket. i'm not saying that we should not be reviewing Dept of Buildings policies, but let's not forget about being practical and reasonable in our demands because unless we decide to 100% stop construction, no matter how vigilant we are, accidents will continue to happen.

7:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I am sure there is corruption (point in case, the two brooklyn guys that posed as inspectors and got tons of cash off small construction sites by pretending to be officials and saying they would be reported unless paid off). There is also a huge laziness factor. When they inspect sites and find 'nothing', I honestly dont think they ever have shown up at all and just write that in their report. A quick fix would be to have a foreman on the site sign a sheet that they had shown whether a violation is served or not. The DOB has no checks and balances and it is very easy for corruption and laziness to overtake the tasks.

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great ideas - but DOB should start making developers remove illegal building sections rather than just fine them. Also, all inspectors should be accompanied by a representative of the Dept. of Investigation (DOI).

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I work with the Department of Buildings on a daily basis. Some of this stuff is reasonable, some isn't, and a lot of people (not directing at you or anyone) don't understand this bureaucracy which I've worked alongside for years.

There's a lot of things about this system that people don't know because it's a funny industry to break into, we're not developers, and we're not the city, but we are facilitators between them. It's weird to see comments about things I work with everyday that hit the spot, or are way off target.

I'm not sure how deeply I should involve myself in this, and it's late so I don't want to get too worked up about it. But if there's interest, sure, I could offer a comment or two.

12:49 AM  

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