Ever hear the expression, “Hurry up and wait”? In the New York dead of winter – or even the new mornings of spring – you may be doing just that as you face a catch-22 dilemma: the need to address an exterior building violation but the inability to do so immediately because of bad weather, low funds, or construction obstacles beyond your control. Meanwhile, the threat of fines increases.
Fortunately, in situations where you discover that it’s difficult or actually impossible to fix a violation right away – particularly those involving concrete work, roofing, and other repairs requiring temperature – or moisture-sensitive materials – the city offers some wiggle-room.
The first thing to note is that there is no such thing as a general “city” violation. You can get fined by the Department of Buildings (DOB), the Environmental Control Board, the Fire Department, and/or the Department of Sanitation, with only the first two of these listing violations being online (both together at http://nyc.gov/html/dob/ – use the building information system web query function in the right column).
Even when building info is online, however, “the city has lots of databases and they don’t talk to each other,” notes Josh Blackman, CEO of Brownstone Management in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Blackman represents the 41-unit co-op at 45 Plaza Street West, in Brooklyn near Grand Army Plaza. Last year, the board learned that roots from a tree stump in a sidewalk bed “had raised the edge of the flag [i.e., a flat concrete square] and part of the sidewalk was sticking in the air a bit. It was a physical danger and a financial liability,” Blackman notes. “God forbid somebody should trip and fall.”
Blackman gave the board some contractor quotes for a complete fix, but the co-op, says board president Kristi Niemeyer, “at that point was not in a financial position to do the whole scenario, and we asked what we could do for a temporary fix.”
“The first idea was paint it [with yellow warning stripes] and put cones around it,” Blackman says. “But people could just trip over the cones, or the paint might be snowed over.” His solution was to have a handyman mix a small batch of concrete and smooth over the cracked and jutting sidewalk shards. “So now there’s a smoothed-over bump, a slight rise and fall. It’s not perfect, but it mitigates the tripping hazard.”
It was only after this proactive bit of handiwork, says Niemeyer, that someone seeking to refinance or buy – “We’ve had a lot of both, so off the top of my head I don’t remember which” – brought the board “some feedback from the city that we had two violations, one of which appeared to be an issue with the sidewalk. We’d never been given any indication that we had any outstanding violations or fines,” she adds. “We were never notified.”
And indeed, the DOB’s online records – which have been known to vary from the physical records kept at the DOB itself – show no violations involving the sidewalk around the lot designated “43-45 Plaza Street West & 941-947 Union Street.”
This particular case is one example of how a working solution can be put in place temporarily until a final fix can be done – which, in this particular case, will be a while, says Niemeyer, giving an example of how physical realities can be beyond one’s control even when you do have the funds for a fix available: “The building next door has been doing all this work lasting more than a year and a half,” she says, “and even if we could have fixed up that particular piece of sidewalk, it was impossible since the [other building’s] bridgework has a stanchion there.”
If you do indeed get a building violation that you can’t address right away, don’t panic. Even though it has to be corrected before a new or amended certificate of occupancy can be obtained, and even though a DOB violation, at least, will, in the department’s words, “ordinarily impair the sale or refinancing of a property since it will appear against the property on a title search,” there’s a system in place for dealing with unavoidable delays.
“The first thing to do is go down and contest it,” advises Steve Greenbaum, director of property management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate. A city department or agency “will issue a violation and say, ‘The fine for this is X amount of dollars.’ You shouldn’t just pay it. You should go down there – most of these violations come with a hearing date on them – and mitigate the damage.”
You do that, he says, “by saying honestly if it’s out of your control, or it’s an oversight. Or you can plead on the mercy of the court. And the court will usually offer a reduction. So, a $2,500 fine can be reduced substantially – by a half, a third, even down to 300 or 500 bucks.”
A board member can do this, says Greenbaum, who adds: “If it’s beyond your scope, there are attorneys who specialize in this, and architects sometimes go down and mitigate the fines. Many managing agents go down themselves and mitigate them, but sometimes they’re not capable.”
Some mitigating factors – even ones meriting dismissal – involve technical errors on the violation ticket that the inspector wrote. It’s like a traffic ticket, which generally gets dismissed if, for example, the license-plate number is wrong or the make, model, or color of the car is incorrect. “If your building number is 311 and [the violation] is made out to 321, they’ll dismiss that right away,” says Greenbaum. “We manage 150 Seventh Avenue [at West 19th Street] and we got a violation made out to 150 Seventh Avenue South,” at Charles Street in Greenwich Village. “We went down and fought it, and it was dismissed.”
Yet an incorrect address, which carries the possibility that your building is being cited for another’s problems, is one thing. Don’t count on getting a dismissal for a “t” not being crossed or an “i” not being dotted. “Sometimes,” says Greenbaum, “a judge will look at [a violation ticket], see that it’s obviously your building, and let the violation stand.”
And sometimes, even after a judge has dismissed it, an inspector will go to your building specifically to issue a violation. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you think you’re going to get away with it,’” Greenbaum notes. “The bottom line is: run your buildings violation-free.”