CRP Pressing for Promised Building Fraud Action

An image from the CRP’s April 16 presentation to CB4’s Housing, Health & Human Services Committee.

BY EILEEN STUKANE | Optimism was in the air when Chelsea’s newly formed Community & Residents Protection Working Group (CRP) received correspondence from John Waldman, Government and Community Affairs liaison, NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) that the CRP’s exposé of falsified applications for building permits would be addressed at the DOB’s Build Safe Conference on April 27.

Trying to pin down exactly what was discussed and what action may be undertaken, however, has not been not easy. Those in the know, such as Patrick Wehle, DOB’s Assistant Commissioner of the Office of External Affairs and Waldman’s superior, and Jeffrey Margolies Assistant Commissioner of Intergovernmental Affairs, NY State Department of Homes and Community Renewal (DHCR), did not want to speak directly to conference discussions, referring Chelsea Now to their press offices instead.

As noted in our article, “Report Exposes Lying Landlords, Devious Developers” (April 23, 2015), the CRP had discovered that owner/landlords were lying on DOB applications for construction by indicating that buildings were not occupied and not rent-regulated, when they most certainly were occupied and rent-regulated. Without a digital check between the DOB and the DHCR — the agency that holds every building’s occupancy and rent regulation status — there was no bounce-back on DOB’s online application when false information was entered. With no tenants in place, according to falsified applications, no Tenant Protection Plans were required for residents in the 80 buildings discovered by CRP to have illegal permits. Tenants in these buildings were frequently subject to living without heat, water, and electricity, while their homes became   construction sites with landlords who preferred that they move.

Alex Schnell, DOB’s Press Secretary, emphasized that the issue of having a Tenant Protection Plan in place for buildings undergoing any type of construction was a focus at the conference. Chapter 33 of the Building Code was updated to emphasize that construction or demolition in all buildings with occupied dwelling units be performed in accordance with a tenant protection plan, as required by Chapter 1 of Title 28 of the Administrative Code.

Although Schnell did not know whether the issue of falsified permits was directly addressed at the conference, he did say that, “As a licensee you’re signing off that everything in that permit is legal and if we find out that the application is not code compliant, we’ll revoke the permit, put in a Stop Work order.” The system under which the DOB has traditionally learned about a falsification is through its random audits, and by responding to complaints. “We are always encouraging people, if they believe they’re being harassed, that they need to report it in a call to 311 so we can investigate it,” he said.

Schnell went on to say that DOB inspectors have routes that are based upon complaints. In addition, inspectors visit sites that have their own safety inspectors and are heavily monitored. Basically, the DOB will respond to complaints from other agencies, from residents calling in, or from findings the DOB may uncover when a landlord is audited. However, now the groundbreaking CRP report also exists with its sense of urgency to get agencies working together to stop lying landlords.

To encourage more communication between agencies, in February the Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force was created to bring together the NY State Attorney General’s Office, the NYC Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD), the DOB, the DHCR, and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“When an individual calls in a tenant harassment complaint, it gets routed to the proper agencies and we work on it as four separate agencies unified to address tenant harassment,” said Schnell. This Task Force may ultimately be the organization that is able to bring action against landlords operating with illegally obtained building permits. However, when asked whether the State Attorney General’s Office, which is part of the Task Force, is looking into the issue of falsified permits, Elizabeth Debold, Deputy Press Secretary, replied, “Unfortunately we cannot comment on whether or not we are investigating this matter, however, it’s important to note that the Task Force’s work is ongoing.”

Formed by members of the Council of Chelsea Block Associations and Save Chelsea, the CRP is continuing its push for action — and is also investigating the legality of DOB permits for building “alteration,” which has allowed landlord/developers to construct an incongruous couple of stories atop an existing building which was not altered at all.

Not to be completely lost, the optimism that existed before the DOB’s Build Safe Conference, exists in a remark from the DOB’s Waldman: “Under new leadership in the Buildings Department, there are many reforms on the way and there are great things ahead of us that we should expect from the undertakings.”