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Evolution: Local Laws

Local law 10/80 concerns facade repair. but then there's Local Law 11/98, which also concerns facade repair and supersedes the original facade law. There is Local Law 58, which provides for handicapped access; Local Law 53, which concerns water meters; Local Law 39, which deals with compactors; Local Law 76, which is about asbestos removal; Local Law 16, which bans the use of locks on elevator doors; and Local Law 19, which — well what does Local Law 19 cover, anyway? (Answer: recycling requirements.)

It's getting so you need a scorecard to keep track of the proliferation of local laws that have cropped up in the last 20 years. In fact, there even is a scorecard of sorts: the 385-page New York City Apartment Management Checklist, published annually since the early 1980s, which details all the new laws and revisions to old ones. "The book has grown a lot larger over the years," admits Susan Lipp, its executive editor. "The original checklist was not as thick as it is today. There are more laws than ever before."

Indeed: managers, attorneys, and other real estate professionals all agree that one of the major changes in the world of cooperatives and condominiums in the last two decades has been the dramatic increase in local laws concerning the care and upkeep of buildings. There are now so many regulations that some management companies have set up compliance departments dedicated solely to keeping on top of regulations.

"The number of laws has absolutely increased," says Peter J. Burgess, president of Peter J. Burgess Management. "If you didn't have trade papers to keep up with it all, it would be an impossible task. Twenty years ago, it was very limited; now it seems like there are new ones every year."

The list of laws a building can trip over range from the obscure to the obvious, and all have severe penalties for noncompliance. There are biannual, annual, semiannual, or quarterly requirements concerning air-conditioning systems, asbestos, boiler/burner certification, building registration, elevators, exterior building wall inspections, fire safety plans and notices, garbage removal, lead paint, exterior and interior lighting, smoking, painting, recycling, satellite dishes, sidewalk canopies, sidewalk repair, snow removal, sign posting, smoke detectors, sprinkler and standpipe inspection, tax assessments, waste compactors, water and sewer bills, water conservation, and window guards.

Usually a local law comes about because of an accident, public outcry over an issue, and/or the threat of litigation. In May 1979, a Barnard College student was struck and killed by a piece of falling masonry. Her death was the impetus for Local Law 10/80, requiring that owners of buildings over six stories retain a licensed architect or engineer to periodically check exterior walls and then submit a report to the Department of Buildings. In 1985, Local Law 76 was passed because of cases of inept asbestos removal that had spread the poisonous substance through the air. In 1986, amendments were added involving asbestos disclosure requirements.

"Politicians respond to public outcry," says Edward Braverman, a senior partner with Braverman & Associates. Adds Dick Koral, director of the Apartment House Institute: "An architect once wrote a book called Form Follows Disaster. That's what happens in these cases: the law follows a disaster."

The increase in laws designed to protect the health and safety of residents and passersby has meant that managers must be better trained than ever. "Boards need to insure that their managing agents are capable not only of filing the required documents but also that they have a system in place to make sure they are filed," observes David Kuperberg, president of Cooper Square Realty, who adds that "a significant amount of my office square footage is consumed with paperwork and records of filings."

"Compliance also calls for more manpower and hours," reports Michael Wolfe, president of Midboro Management. "It is extremely important to note that local laws place extra burden, liability, and effort on managing agents. To comply, managing agents incur additional costs to add administrative personnel and maintain significant storage space to maintain the records relating to the local laws."

The increase in these laws has also led to an increase in operating costs for buildings, as well. Local Law 16/84 forced co-ops and condos to modify their elevators to include fire safety devices and a fire department control panel. Escape route signs had to be posted in the hallways. Local Law 38/99 requires an annual inspection for lead paint hazards in apartments if children under six years of age reside there. Building-wide notices must be distributed when common area projects disturb lead based paint.

Burgess adds that such costs can be significant: "If you are replacing two boilers, as we did in one building, and you find you have an asbestos abatement situation that you need to correct, that can add $100,000 on top of the $60,000 to $80,000 for each boiler. That's a major cost but there's no way around it." Noncompliance can result in hefty fines, too. For instance, owners who do not comply with air-conditioning system rules can face jail sentences and/or fines of up to $27,500 per day for each violation.

Some feel that the proliferation of local laws has gotten out of hand. "It has become so complex," Koral says. "It is long overdue that a commission be created to simplify and rationalize this system. I don't think the laws are properly cross-referenced. I've tried to wade through the publications the city puts out but there so many items to keep on top of."

Still, keeping track of such paperwork can also lead to cost savings. Kuperberg recalls a fire that occurred in one of his buildings about two years ago. One of the residents sued the cooperative, claiming that the co-op had not provided her with a working smoke detector. Ultimately, the board won the suit because the agent was able to show that he had filed the proper paperwork — and the owner had signed for the smoke detector. "We kept all the documentation as required under the smoke detector law," Kuperberg says. "We beat back the lawsuit."

 

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