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The Dirty Little Secret in the Basement: Illegal Laundry Rooms

Bendix Anderson in Bricks & Bucks on August 21, 2019

New York City

Laundry C of O
Aug. 21, 2019

Thousands of cooperative and condominium buildings in New York City may have a dirty little secret in their basements. “I would say 50 percent of buildings have illegal laundry rooms,” says Jamey Ehrman, senior engineer for RAND Engineering & Architecture

In many buildings over the years, owners have simply installed a few washing machines and dryers in an empty room. Without the right safety features, a laundry room can cause serious problems, including a flood or a fire. And if the building has a Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) that does not allow a laundry room, fixing the problem may require more than renovations. It may become a bureaucratic nightmare that takes longer than a year to resolve. 

“Make sure [your] laundry facilities are properly permitted and up to code,” advises Andrew Rudansky, senior deputy press secretary for the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB). Those steps include checking the C of O for the building (if it has one) to make sure a laundry room is allowed, and hiring a licensed master plumber to make sure the room is up to code. 

If DOB inspectors discover an illegal laundry room in your building, the problem may take a very long time to resolve. “Technically, you should shut it down immediately,” says Ehrman, which will mean residents will have to use outside laundry services. Meanwhile, the board should act to resolve the problem before the building begins to rack up fines – which can vary in scale depending on how tough inspectors decide to be, says Ehrman. 

Rudansky of the DOB notes that washing machines and dryers use gas that can ignite, and washers use water that can cause a flood. Improperly maintained lint vents can also become clogged, adding to the fire risk. “Illegal electrical and plumbing work associated with a laundry room will not only be subject to DOB enforcement actions, putting your building at risk for punitive civil penalties, but could pose a significant fire safety issue,” Rudansky says. 

It can cost more than $150,000 to make an illegal laundry room safe enough to pass inspection, says Ehrman. It should have fire-rated walls, which can cost more than $100,000 to retrofit. It should also have vents that carry hot air outside. If the vents have to be longer than 14 feet, the air in the duct will need to keep moving via specially constructed fans. A safe laundry room will also need rigid gas lines, a sprinkler system in case of fire, and drains in case of flood. 

This process can take many months to complete. Most New York buildings created after 1938 need a Cof O that designates the uses allowed in the space. To get a new C of O that allows a laundry room, a building would have to get an “Alteration Type-One” (Alt-One) permit from DOB, which can open a can of worms. “Most building owners try to avoid having to get an Alt-One permit at all costs,” says Ehrman. That’s because before DOB will issue the permit, it typically requires the building to clear all of its outstanding violations and open building permits – which often include a dozen or more open permits for alterations to individual apartments that were started, finished, and forgotten decades ago. 

“The great majority of buildings have open permits or violations, and the process of clearing them can take anywhere from three months to a year,” says Ehrman. Buildings often spend tens of thousands of dollars to hire expediting companies to clear them. 

Co-op and condo boards should begin confronting the potential problem with their laundry room by looking at their existing Cof O to see if it allows a laundry. Owners of older buildings should consider hiring a professional to examine their laundry room and write a letter for their files that certifies the laundry meets the requirements of the code – or identifies any problems that need to be fixed. Ignoring this dirty little secreet will not make it go away.

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