The Journal News “Senate probe of New York’s building codes zeroes in on two municipalities with terrible reputations: Mount Vernon, where a lone inspector handles the entire city, and Ramapo, where lax enforcement has led volunteer firefighters and the County of Rockland to step in.
“The key takeaway from this investigation is that there has been a systematic failure to adequately prioritize code enforcement at all levels of government,” said state Sen. James Skoufis, who leads the Senate Committee on Investigations and Government Operations.
He said his panel’s seven-month deep dive looked at “what is working, what is not working and where we need to focus on prioritization of code enforcement in the State of New York.”
And Mount Vernon and Ramapo were repeatedly cited in the report for failures.
In many towns, building code enforcement is often lost on people until it’s too late. More than quality-of-life is at stake: Overbuilding clogs traffic and stresses sewer and drainage systems. Abandoned properties pose health and safety risks. Illegal conversions threaten residents of carved-up buildings and the first responders who may have to navigate an altered floor plan amid smoke and flames.
Building code enforcement faces many hurdles in municipalities. Owners can be difficult to track down. Fines often aren’t steep enough to discourage violations, and are viewed by slumlords as “the cost of doing business.” State support, including financial aid, is often lacking.
Municipalities’ own dysfunction can feed enforcement struggles.
In Ramapo several officials have been investigated, suspended or indicted on charges relating to fraud and corruption. That includes a fire inspector who was demoted for failing to properly inspect private schools and a chief building inspector who admitted tampering with public records after he was accused fudging town records and undercharging for permits. After he resigned from Ramapo, Anthony Mallia was later hired as a consultant in Spring Valley.
Amid these shenanigans, the town’s population rose from 108,905 in 2000 to 136,848 in 2018, a 25.7% increase. Much of the growth comes from the Orthodox Jewish community, adding to pressure for increased housing stock, synagogues, and yeshivas in certain areas.
Ramapo’s recordkeeping and enforcement problems were concerning enough that the Department of State installed an oversight officer. For reasons unknown, the state declined to allow the person who provided Ramapo’s oversight to meet with Senate’s investigations team.
Although the state has removed the oversight officer, the Senate committee encouraged the state to bring back building code oversight to the town. But, Skoufis said, the inspector should be given more power. “We were astounded to learn that the monitor, when she was there, did not look at specific applications,” Skoufis said. “I was shocked to learn the answer was no.”
Gordon Wren, a member of the Rockland County Illegal Housing Task Force, agreed. “Our firefighters are put in extreme danger,” said Wren, who helped form the task force to keep watch over how municipalities and the courts enforce building codes. “It makes no sense for the town not to prosecute these cases.”
Both Wren and the Senate investigation agreed that Ramapo continues to show apathy toward enforcement. Trivial fines allow landlords to just eat the cost rather than comply; excessive trial delays allow sometime dangerous violations can continue longer.
Amid Ramapo’s lax action, the county launched the Rockland Codes Initiative and a countywide rental registry. While counties usually don’t have a role in code enforcement, the codes initiative focuses on public health and sanitary codes.
General recommendations to address frequent issues include:
- Improving recordkeeping, which would speed enforcement in several localities.
- Ensuring proper training for code enforcement officers. Financial aid through the Department of State exists, but funds have not been distributed since 1991.
- Higher fines for noncompliance and illegal conversion, so financial penalties are not viewed by slumlords as “the cost of doing business.” Skoufis recommends setting statewide minimum fines for violations, with escalating minimums for repeat offenders.
- Creating a law to bring transparency to limited liability companies, or LLCs, so it’s clear who should be fined for violations or held criminally liable in the case of a disaster. A bill to accomplish this, sponsored by Skoufis and Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, passed the Legislature and is awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature.
- Establishing a charge of reckless endangerment of an emergency service personif a building’s illegal conversion hampers or hurts a first responder during an emergency evacuation. This legislation is sponsored by Sen. David Carlucci and Zebrowski.
- Strengthening the state Code Council. The 17-member body responsible for reviewing and amending the Uniform Code, but there are four vacancies on the panel, which is appointed by the governor.”
To read the full text of The Journal News story here.