DOB tickets and fines are on the upswing – but a new web service can help your building stay ahead of the game.
Are you worried about missing a due date on a city regulation or concerned about missing violations that follow? Worry less and take heart: the days of getting a snail-mail Department of Buildings (DOB) notice after the fact and trying to remedy things yourself are long gone. In the future, experts say, we’ll all solve our DOB problems in 15 minutes.
One can only hope.
Here’s how the system currently works: a city inspector shows up at your building. He either came by randomly or in response to a complaint by a neighboring building, a leftover rental tenant, or even a shareholder or unit-owner.
If the inspector finds violations, he or she enters the pertinent data into a handheld computer. That data then enters the city system, which at some point mails you a printed notice, at least theoretically. Many managers and board members claim they sometimes don’t receive the first notice (or any notice, for that matter). Sometimes, notices go to the wrong addressees, such as a management company that you fired. Or sometimes they go to the right person, who misfiles or loses it. Whatever the case, missing a notice results in fines and a black mark against your building that a refinancing lender or a potential apartment buyer can readily look up.
“The Department of Buildings has become so tremendously complex and in need of fees,” explains veteran building manager and attorney Don Levy, a vice president at Brown Harris Stevens. “They’re self-protective and they’ve put in all sorts of new regulations” in recent times, and with every new regulation comes a new potential fine and another mailed notification that might or might not arrive in a timely fashion.
The Department of Finance reported that from January to October 2008, the DOB’s building-inspection arm, the Environmental Control Board (ECB), issued 75,037 violations. Most were sent automatically to building owners who hadn’t submitted timely evidence of annual inspections. The total amount of the fines? Roughly $202 million, or an average of more than $293 per violation.
The city, to be fair, does try to make compliance easy. DOB records, says spokeswoman Carly Sullivan, “are readily available online for anyone to review. Many documents may be submitted or prepared electronically, eliminating the need to come into a borough office. Construction, boiler, and electrical inspection appointments can be made online, and plan-exam appointments can be made over the telephone.” Since e-mail can be easily doctored, the city has good reason to mail paper notices.
Attack of the Killer Snail
So snail-mail issues aren’t easily remedied. And monitoring your building every day from the DOB’s Buildings Information System (BIS) is impractical and time-consuming. It’s only recently that at least one firm has automated the process by finding a way to interface with the BIS in order to monitor specific buildings. It then e-mails immediate, computerized notices of city violations and other changes in a building’s status quo.
That firm is Empower NY (not to be confused with the state government’s electricity-conservation program, EmPower New York). The company’s web-based service monitors your building’s entries in the various agencies’ databases, and sends you immediate notification of any changes.
Primarily designed for building managers, although still applicable to supers and co-op/condo boards, the program tracks violations, and sends reminders of due dates for inspections and certifications. “It is a tremendous alert system,” says Maryann Carro-Caputo, president of Tribor Management. “We get immediate notification of complaints being filed, so we’re able to react before the city even sends out a notice.”
In her portfolio of 36 buildings, each of which is monitored by Empower NY, Carro-Caputo and her staff “get notifications in real time when things are happening. When a resident calls 311, I know within three to five minutes that a complaint has been issued and is in the city’s system. The same with inspectors: if an inspector is issuing a violation, I know within minutes of his entering it into the DOB computer. If we were relying on supers letting us know when inspectors came by or we were relying on the mailing, that would put us a week behind.”
Carro-Caputo also uses Empower NY as an information aggregator. “If you’ve got a building getting a lot of violations, it tells you there’s a problem that has to be addressed. If I see a building has got several complaints for no heat, it puts my managers in a position to find out if there’s a boiler problem. It just gives you the information you need to better manage your building.”
The monthly fee, which covers all the properties she manages, “is very reasonable,” she says. At this point she does not charge her buildings a specific portion of that fee; the feeling is that by saving buildings money they would have spent on fines, she’s enhancing her firm’s level of service and burnishing her company’s reputation.
Once You’re Notified … Then What?
A quick and timely alert, however, is just the first part when it comes to avoiding fines. A quick and timely response is another.
And that often means an expediter, or, in city parlance, a “filing representative.” These are consultants – former DOB employees, one-time contractors, or other such people familiar with the inner workings of city filing processes – whom you hire to help ensure all the proper paperwork gets done in the right way and submitted to the right places.
Explains Sam Pruyn, who with his stepbrother Matthew Calvo runs the Sunnyside, Queens-based expediting firm Building Brothers: “We offer services that range from building-permit procurement to violation removal to services where we can monitor a building owner’s property to any changes in status” – that last part being similar to what Empower NY does, without the automated real-time notifications.
The buildings department requires filing representatives doing business with the department to register annually for a nominal ($50) fee and to obtain a DOB identification card. (Details are at nyc.gov/html/dob/html/licenses/license_filing_rep.shtml, which also gives a code of conduct for expediters and a tutorial for understanding and complying with that code.)
“Filing representatives may assist with waiting in line and filing documents,” says the DOB’s Sullivan, “but they are by no means necessary to build in New York City.”
Nonetheless, managers such as Levy are “in favor of them. They are used frequently by architects and engineers and almost universally by people in helping to clear up a violation. Their costs are not outrageous, and I think their use is totally warranted. If a management company is going to engage the services of an expediter, that should be disclosed to whoever is paying the bill,” he notes. “But the amounts are not enormous and it’s routinely done.”
Expediters are often found through word-of-mouth, since searching for “expediters” or in the phone book will yield export companies and shipping services alongside such building-related consultants as - Long Island Expeditors. In the unlikely event your building manager doesn’t know any expediting firms, “Call the architect or engineer that you’re using on a project and ask them,” advises Levy.
However you go about it, it’s good business to take care of problems quickly, before fines and bad feelings mount up.
“It’s interesting,” says Carro-Caputo. “When [Empower NY] first approached me, we put two or three buildings on a one-month test. Within two days, we got notice of a tenant filing a complaint of a problem in the apartment.
“Remember, regardless of whether the owner is responsible for a repair, the violation goes against the buildings. Because we knew right away, we were able to fix the problem and cure this situation before it became a permanent mark against the building,” which despite being called that in the trade isn’t literally permanent but is indeed “difficult to get removed,” she says, adding: “It’s a lot less work when you’re ahead of a problem than behind it, believe me.”