Fixing DOB

Sure, its an ambitious title. But, as Reverb says in the comments to Monday’s post, its great to define the problem, but how do you fix it?

First, let’s recap the magnitude of the problem: if you call in a complaint to 311 for illegal after-hours/weekend work, there’s about a one in four chance that an inspector will show up that day. 75% of the time, the inspectors show up days later, when, presumably, the illegal work you called about is long since finished and the inspection is a waste of time and money.

All of this encourages the kind of Wild West mentality that has dominated construction in Williamsburg and Greenpoint for years. If the odds of getting caught doing illegal work are low, and the penalties (in relation to the reward) are also low, there’s very little incentive for builders to play by the rules. This is exacerbated when you throw deadlines into the mix – rezonings, 421-a sunsets, and the like encourage builders to play beat the clock.

Despite the fact that DOB has added new inspectors (and plan examiners), the department is clearly understaffed, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that complaints go uninspected. The City is in belt-tightening mode, so the prospect of a lot more inspectors is slim (though to its credit, the City has been adding a lot of inspectors in recent years). But beyond staffing, this is also a problem of priorities. “Nuisances” such as after-hours work are not a top priority for DOB. Life-safety issues (such as “my neighbor’s building looks like it might fall – on me”) are the highest priority, as they should be. The DOB’s list of complaint categories (pdf warning) says that after-hours work is a second-tier priority (category B). So too are issues such as working without a permit – another category of complaint that probably can’t be substantiated if its not investigated immediately.

Of course the city could just decide that a well regulated building industry is as important as as an efficient buildings department, and shift personnel from plan examination to inspection. That would result in a slow down in permitting and delays in building, which would not be popular in the real estate industry. Considering that construction is a major component of the New York City economy, and that the city continues to suffer from a shortage of housing, slowing down all construction to stop the small number of sites working illegally is probably not going to happen. But it is one option.

Its also worth remembering that DOB is an agency that exists to regulate building, not slow it down. Generally, it is in the city’s interest (economically and otherwise) to encourage building construction, not to stifle it. This is why the performance criteria for DOB is weighted towards streamlining the process. For instance, one area in which DOB showed improvement was in issuing permits – the average permit is issued in 5.x days in 2007 vs. 5.y days in 2006. That can mean that the system is more efficient, or it can mean that permits are being pushed through in order to show improvement. But either way, the department’s performance is noted as improving when they issue permits faster.

Given the reality of budgets, department mandates, inspection priorities, etc., can anything be done to improve response to quality-of-life issues related to building? There are a few things, actually.

  • Get rid of the charade of “closing out” stale complaints. If there is a complaint for after-hours work that is more than 24 hours old, don’t send an inspector out – its a waste of time and money. Instead, admit that the complaint was not inspected, and close it out as “unresolved”. Then, flag the site for follow-up inspections. For the next 30 or 60 days, conduct random inspections of the site during evening or weekend hours. Don’t just do one follow up, do a series over the course of a month. This would not cost any additional money, and could be done by the existing cadre of inspectors as part of their normal evening and weekend rounds.
  • Give other agencies the mandate to inspect and issue violations for certain class B complaints. NYPD can shut down a site for working without a permit, but they rarely do. Likewise, NYFD and other agencies with enforcement power could be brought on line. Maybe these issues are second tier for them as well, but having twice as many (or ten times as many) “inspectors” with this as a second-tier priority is still an improvement. This would not take any additional funding, it would only require that the higher ups make the issues a priority (albeit a second-tier one) for their personnel.
  • Make it a policy that inspectors must get out of their cars and actually try to enter a building site. Sure, most inspectors are diligent, but sometimes its not clear from the street that there is work going on. They may be working in the back of the building, with the gate closed. Unless they are looking and listening, an inspector could easily miss illegal work in progress.
  • Create inspection “hot zones” – flood neighborhoods with particularly high numbers of active building projects with inspectors on a regular basis. This idea – courtesy of Evan Thies – is akin to NYPD’s policy of flooding high-crime neighborhoods. Do random inspections during regular hours and sweeps on nights and weekends – if builders know that random inspections are a possibility, they are far less likely to be routinely flouting the law.
  • Limit the number of after-hour variances by neighborhood. Either as a percentage of all work permits, or as a fixed number, limit how many variances can be issued on a given block or in a given Community Board.
  • Exceptional cases aside, no site should receive more than one or two variances per month.
  • Do not issue variances in areas that have been certified for rezoning. This last suggestion, and the two before it, are not blanket moratoriums (which would probably be unconstitutional). Unlike a building permit, an after-hours variance is a privilege, not a right. DOB should be handing out these privileges judiciously, and should not be doing anything to undermine potential rezonings. And once an area has been certified by city planning (DCP) for rezoning, it is pretty clear that some action will be taken. If there were a workable way to extend this moratorium to areas that are under study by DCP, that should be considered as well.

Again, just about all of these proposals could be carried out immediately without requiring any significant increase in funding or staff. Some of the proposals might require legislative action, but I think any action that is required would be on the City level and would not require going to Albany. These proposals – or others like them – would address immediate problems, and would put builders on general notice that inspections are going to be more frequent and more efficient.