Bad Boys and Buildings

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Historically speaking, New York City has come a long way from the days of dangerous, overcrowded and patently unsafe residential buildings that used to mark the landscape of Manhattan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are dozens of agencies and offices in place to make sure building owners and landlords are held accountable for keeping tenants protected. But what happens when certain buildings don't rise to the level of emergency status and evade the various safeguards that the city has in place? How do buildings fall through the cracks?

Residents of 315 W. 103rd St. have been asking those questions for years, and have received only dispiriting and slow answers. The current tenants of the building have been suffering through a renovation project that began in 2009, when the owner of the building filed a statement asserting that the building was vacant. That turned out to be completely false-several residents were living in the building with no intention of moving-and the building has become a battle zone between the outraged tenants and irritated neighbors and the owner who continues to push ahead with construction, despite numerous violations and stop-work orders from the Department of Buildings (DOB). The owner, Jacob Avid, has attempted to expand and update the brownstone building, but now the construction project languishes in the midst of its latest stop-work order, issued in August for excavation work in the rear of the property that isn't supposed to take place while people are living in the building.

Nadine Herman, who lives in the front of the building and has been treated to views of decrepit scaffolding and a dead tree outside her window for years now, said that despite the intervention of elected officials and the DOB, the situation has barely improved.

"When you walk down the block and you see this eyesore, you can't believe it," Herman said. "The DOB is still trying to help. Why haven't they said, enough is enough, and it's time for a restore order to be put in place?"

Many tenants in similar situations want to know why the city can't simply make a property owner put things back the way they were before illegal construction took place.

The DOB has recourse to deal with owners and contractors who flout the law, but it's not a straightforward or quick process.

"A property owner is responsible to maintain his or her property in a safe and lawful manner at all times; that includes work being done on the property," said DOB Associate Commissioner of Communications and Public Affairs Tony Sclafani. "If work is being done illegally in any way, the DOB issues violations, stop work orders and even criminal court summons to hold the owner accountable. But the owner has the right to contest those violations in court."

In other words, an illegal addition, for example, can be slapped with numerous fines and violations, but it's not easy to undo the problem once it's there.

The city does have ways of escalating fines for repeat offenders, but even that isn't always enough to deter owners who continually allow unlawful work on their properties.

On the Upper East Side, one notorious example is 1374 York Ave., also known as the MacDougal Street Synagogue Hotel. It's been a target of the city's crackdown on illegal hotels, but it's also been a target for DOB violations, receiving a total of 33 Environmental Control Board (ECB) violations since 2000, 20 of which have been Class 1, or "immediately hazardous." But once each violation is resolved, the DOB can't do much to prevent them from recurring except threaten to find new violations and impose more fines, which can escalate to $25,000, as well as the criminal court summons, which results in a misdemeanor with fines and possible jail time.

Some elected officials have called for more cooperation and transparency between various city agencies and the public to ensure that owners who repeatedly rack up violations appear more frequently on the radars of enforcement agencies.

"The City relies on self-certified Certificates of Correction as testament that a violation-a potential public safety hazard-is remedied," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, whose office has gotten involved with several problem buildings including 315 W. 103rd St. "The public needs to have the utmost confidence in the veracity of these self-certified Certificates of Corrections that DOB accepts and must be assured that any building owner charged with submitting fraudulent claims in these documents will be exposed and punished."

The DOB does allow architects and engineers to professionally certify their own work, and routinely audits a percentage of those certifications to make sure they're following guidelines. In 2007, the DOB gained the ability to suspend or ban an architect's ability to submit self-certified building plans with the city, a penalty that severely impacts their business. Since then, at least 24 architects and engineers have been banned, and their names are listed on the DOB website. Stringer wants the DOB to go one step further, however, and make the self-certification audits available to the public, which he said would further increase accountability.

Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell, whose district encompasses the 103rd Street debacle as well as a building on Central Park West that has been creating problems for the past seven years, agreed that something needs to change with the city processes, and he's in favor of drastic measures.

"In the case of 103rd Street, what do you do to someone who files a false instrument, which is a crime, that says the building's vacant when it's not? What are the ramifications for that person?" O'Donnell said. "Apparently, according to Mayor Mike's vision for the city, there are none."

O'Donnell said that he has written countless letters and even met with the DOB commissioner to discuss that address, and he's baffled as to why nothing has been done. His office has also dealt repeatedly with 465 Central Park West, a property that has been issued 86 ECB violations and has had an illegally built chimney blowing smoke into the neighboring building for years.

O'Donnell believes that there's a lack of efficiency and ability to share information within agencies charged with protecting tenants. Upper West Side Council Member Gale Brewer also deals continually with problematic buildings and also said that information sharing is a critical missing piece of the puzzle.

"It's very dependent on the residents, who have to be so attuned to calling 311, the case number, the follow-up, and then the problem comes back," Brewer said.

"The agencies don't coordinate. I have to call DEP, then I have to call HPD, then DOB, then the Fire Department. They don't have any way of talking amongst themselves," said Brewer. She has suggested that a massive technology upgrade is in order so that agencies can share databases and information while their inspectors are out in the field, but that's a move that would require new city laws as well as room in a tight budget.

"On the subways, if you see something, you're supposed to say something, but that doesn't seem to apply to city agencies," she said.

The DOB, for its part, sends out its 300 inspectors on hundreds of thousands of cases each year. In 2011, DOB inspectors conducted 293,000 inspections and issued 56,472 violations, including 5,189 stop-work orders. But in between every inspection is an opportunity for an owner looking to skirt the law.

"It's a mess that I'm living in, and I never know what I'm going to come home to find. It's very stressful," Herman said about the state of her building, even after the intervention of elected officials and the attention of the whole neighborhood. "Basically everything is the same. We're back to where we were years ago."

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