There is an excellent editorial in this week's Queens Chronicle (12/21/2006):
Every week, it’s the same story with a different headline. City fails to enforce building codes in Glendale. Controversial developer halted in Maspeth. Builder blasted for shoddy work in Bayside. It’s no secret that the city has failed to keep pace with development—and that, time and again, the consequence has been unmonitored construction that leaves residents with oversized eyesores and slipshod structures in their community.
With development in Queens continuing at a healthy clip, the problems show few signs of abating. This year alone, the number of citywide building code violations rose 6.2 percent, with construction related infractions constituting most of that increase. That uptick coincided with a 5.5 percent rise in the number of construction applications submitted to the Department of Buildings—and an astounding 33.7 percent jump in buildings related 311 complaints.
There is little doubt that self certification is the prime culprit. For decades, the DOB has allowed licensed architects and engineers hired by developers to approve plans without subjecting them to the detailed scrutiny of city examiners. Dating back to 1975, the policy has provided relief to a department plagued by shortages in personnel to enforce city codes. Today, nearly half of all building applications filed rely on self certification, up from 4.4 percent a decade ago.
In theory, the policy should work, since practitioners place their license on the line when vouching for a developer. But in practice, the system is ripe for abuse. With the DOB auditing just 17.5 percent of this year’s 12,672 self certified plans, many architects assume, often correctly, that they can sidestep the rules while avoiding sanctions. And once a building is certified, the floodgates are open for unscrupulous developers to railroad their projects through with minimal city oversight. Today, the DOB employs just 350 inspectors to oversee nearly a million active sites. The result: developers today are less willing than ever to cross their t’s and dot their i’s when it comes to building up to code—especially when the penalties are lax and the profit motive high.
So what can be done? That’s a tough question. The most logical recourse would be to permanently end self certification, but doing so may not be realistic. It would be far too expensive for the city to monitor every project and as long as that continues to be the case, buildings officials will have to delegate some responsibilities.
But there are some steps we can take. The first should be to make it easier for the city to revoke self certification privileges for any practitioner who knowingly falsifies an application. The next step, self evident as it may seem, would be to steer more funding to the chronically understaffed DOB so it can hire more enforcement officers to conduct audits, carry out random inspections and mete out punishments. The City Council has already beefed up penalties by passing two bills that require steeper fines and harsher mandatory minimum sentences for developers who violate a stop work order.
But if anybody could be doing more to alleviate the strain, it’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In his more than five years in office, the mayor has given huge subsidies to developers to spur economic growth, yet done little to expand the department’s capacity to monitor those new projects. His sweeping, longterm vision for the Big Apple, unveiled at the Queens Museum of Art last week, calls for even more housing by 2030 to accommodate an additional 1 million city residents. A more powerful mechanism to rein in unscrupulous developers will become all the more vital as new housing springs up in every neighborhood of Queens.
The mayor has bet much of his legacy on overhauling the Department of Education, but he should not restrict his efforts to just one perennially failing city agency. The buildings department is also in need of a serious shake up. The quicker the mayor recognizes that fact, and acts on it, the sooner we can look forward to living in a growing community that hasn’t been ruined by the people who built it.