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“Safety Is First”

Rick Chandler, a native of Nebraska, has been commissioner of the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) since 2014. Before that he was assistant vice president for facilities at Hunter College, and DOB borough commissioner in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. A licensed civil engineer and a former co-op board president, Chandler is an avid runner and has competed in several marathons.

Habitat: DOB NOW is the department’s new computer platform.The idea is to move many tasks online, yet many people feel that everything still takes too long. Are you hearing complaints like this?

Chandler: I do hear some complaints, but our data shows that our service levels for turning around plan reviews and inspections have never been better. For minor alterations, we’re at under two days to look at a plan. For construction inspections, we’re at around three days.

With this new system, we will be more transparent than ever before because with it being online, any time we touch anything, you will be able to see it on the system. A frequent complaint that we get is that people submit applications and then they don’t hear back. What we suspect – and what we are starting to demonstrate now – is that we are absolutely turning around these applications. It’s just that the people who are filing on behalf of these owners, they’re not getting back to their owners.

Habitat: If there’s been a violation, can boards and managers see that online?

Chandler: Absolutely. We are transitioning from our current system, which is our Building Information System, known as BIS, and we’re building the new platform, DOB NOW. We’re going to be operating with those two systems for several years. Every building in the city has a BIN – a Building Identification Number – and all the records associated with that building are there. That will eventually be visible on DOB NOW, probably in a more user-friendly format. One of the things that’s infuriating to me is that when our inspectors issue violations today, they write it by hand with a pen and paper. They bring that piece of paper back to the office, they hand that piece of paper off to a support person, who then has to type it in. When you go online to our system and look it up on our BIN database, you see what got typed in after the inspector brought it back. That will sometimes take a week, sometimes maybe even a little bit more. Since I’ve started, every one of our 500-plus inspectors is equipped with a tablet computer. Where we haven’t gotten to yet, unfortunately, is online violations. We are working on that. In fact, there’s a pilot program that’s going to be starting any day now, with inspectors carrying around portable printers. The violation will still go through their tablets online, which will then get uploaded. But you won’t get any more of this having to type it in.

Habitat: Last year, the DOB hired 140 new inspectors. Many architects and engineers have complained that the new inspectors are underqualified and that their decisions sometimes seem arbitrary. What are their qualifications, and how much training do they receive?

Chandler: That’s an excellent question. Our training is quite good. That said, these are human beings, and there is an enormous amount [to know]. We have a fair number of people who do very specialized work, and then we have a fair number of inspectors who are – I would use the word “generalists.” We try to make sure that we give them appropriate guidance. There are certain conditions [where] they have to consult with their supervisor before they issue a certain type of violation. I acknowledge that sometimes, as human beings, they can – as we all do – make subjective judgments.

Habitat: Is there any plan to institute an appeals process?

Chandler: There are ways to appeal. If our guy’s being a little bit onerous, then we should know about that and take it into consideration. We have an assistant commissioner over our facades unit. He has senior people who would consider any requests of that nature. [The architect or engineer should] communicate with the inspector and say, “I don’t agree, and I’d like to engage with your supervisor and have a conversation. Could you please let me know who that is?” If they don’t want to do that, I would encourage the [architect or engineer] to either email our facades unit – or call the general number, and [get] routed to our facades unit.

Habitat: Something we hear all the time is the term “unfunded mandates.” For example, new regs that require a third party to inspect elevator work. That’s a cost that didn’t used to exist, and now boards have to absorb it. Is the DOB, or any other city agency, keeping track of these growing costs that boards have to absorb?

Chandler: We don’t keep track of costs because everyone has different estimates. It certainly helps that I and others around here are co-op and condo owners, so we feel it, too. In the first term of [the de Blasio] administration, 84 pieces of legislation from the city council affected our agency. We testified on every one of those as to what we thought the impact would be versus the cost.

Habitat: Code requirements are constantly changing, and a lot of managers say the requirements are overwhelming. Is the DOB doing anything to make the code changes easier to understand and comply with?

Chandler: Yes, there are a couple of ways. Our technical affairs unit has created project guidelines, and they’re posted on our website. We try to write them for three types of audiences: design professionals, owners and managers, and then our own staff. I would encourage people to go to nyc.gov/buildings. There’ll be a “project guidelines” link. The other thing is our “Buildings News.” They could sign up using that same website. That’s where we publish lots of updates and bits of information that people should know.

Habitat: There are new DOB regulations on enclosed balconies, some of which were installed decades ago. The new DOB rules seem to state that if a unit-owner or shareholder can’t prove that the enclosure is legal, it’ll have to be removed. Can you tell us what the DOB is going to do about these enclosed balconies?

Chandler: No, I can’t because I’m discussing that with my first deputy commissioner. Most of these enclosures were done without permits and without any architect or engineer being involved. With all these nor’easters and these high-wind events, that’s just an accident waiting to happen. I know that some of them have been there for years, and I know people would say, “Hey, let sleeping dogs lie.”

Habitat: How would one prove that an enclosure is legal or safe?

Chandler: It has to have an architect’s or engineer’s sealed drawing showing how it was installed. If they do that, the next question that we’re going to ask is, “How does this comply with zoning?” In most cases, they’re not going to be able to comply.

Habitat: Will that mean that they’re going to have to remove the enclosure?

Chandler: Well, that’s the path that we’re standing next to right now. We’re trying to evaluate how we might do this. We’re in a little bit of a challenged space, because the design of these buildings was not intended to have those balconies enclosed, and we have to consider how much zoning floor area was used. Part of our quandary is the fact that these enclosures have added bulk to the building. We’re trying to do what we do with everything, and that is to facilitate safe, compliant development. Safety is first.

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