Can $120 million buy a new Department of Buildings?

Can $120 million buy a new Department of Buildings?

The New York City Department of Buildings (DoB) permitting process can seem like a very special circle of hell: slow, excruciating, expensive, inefficient, opaque and sometimes completely corrupt.  Now we get to see if $120 million of additional funding and 320 new staff members can help to douse the flames that have tortured property owners throughout New York City.

The tales of woe are long and common: stories of Alt-1 permit approvals taking the better part of a year, inspections taking more than a month to schedule, expeditors using cash under the table, and an increasingly complicated web of regulations for the renovations and new construction in the five boroughs.  The Manhattan DA needed nine pages just to list those arrested and the charges in a single DoB-related crackdown in February.

Mayor Bill de Blasio seems to have heard the cries and responded with an unprecedented infusion of resources, including 320 new staff positions and $120 million over four years.  To formalize the Mayor’s vision to address the Agency’s shortcomings, DoB Commissioner Rick Chandler announced a plan last month to completely reform the Agency.  The main goals highlighted in the plan are:

  1. Enhance public and worksite safety;
  2. Increase efficiency and transparency
  3. Improve and simplify the building code; and
  4. Improve the user experience

1. Enhance Safety

As it stands now, many New Yorkers find that the only path to completing a renovation is to avoid the DoB entirely, skipping required permits and accepting the risk of penalties simply to avoid the massive time lag and painful process.  From the Agency’s standpoint, this creates the potential for safety risks to workers, adjoining building occupants and the people who will eventually occupy the subject building.

While an easier permitting process might encourage a higher rate of compliance, the Agency is also proposing changes aimed at promoting safe practices through a combination of proactive enforcement and improvements in how it targets enforcement resources by focusing on bad actors who consistently or repeatedly flaunt the rules.  This effort will start in a brand-new Agency Risk Management Office charged with analyzing agency data to find and mitigate risk. By using data analytics to identify buildings that threaten public safety, this office is charged with tackling corrupt behavior in conjunction with the Legal and Regulatory Affairs Division.  The Agency vows that increasing legal resources will enable its staff to target applicants and construction professionals who abuse the New York City Construction Codes and Zoning Resolution.

2. Increase Efficiency

Commissioner Chandler gives a clear nod to those who are deeply frustrated with an inefficient bureaucracy that is difficult—and sometimes impossible—to navigate.  In his plan, he promises to minimize bureaucracy to bolster rapid, safe development. To support greater efficiency, DoB promises to make significant technological improvements and hire nearly 200 plan examiners and inspectors.

The proposal targets a large portion of the funds for technology with the goals of eliminating the need for in-person visits to DoB and creating a paperless agency.  DoB believes that this increased reliance on technology will allow a more level playing field and reduce the opportunity for corruption.

As DoB describes it, the technology will be used to review online plan submissions, thereby reducing time spent waiting in line in borough offices. The DoB also plans to redesign its website and replace the antiquated Building Information System (BIS) with a more robust, integrated system so that customers can conduct more transactions online including paying fees and scheduling of inspection appointments.

Furthermore, propped up by the Mayor’s pledge to increase affordable housing, the DoB plans a special Affordable Housing Acceleration Unit to process only affordable housing projects.  Finally, the DoB vows to spearhead an inter-agency working group to resolve cross-agency issues that can bring projects to a stand-still today.

3. Improve and Simplify the Building Code

Not only is DoB byzantine, but so are the city’s multiple construction codes.  The proposal includes an effort to simplify and streamline the multiple codes into a single set of rules with the hope that simplicity will streamline permitting and enable applicants to comply with the Building Code more easily.  Second, the DoB wants to standardize the plan objection process both to educate customers about the compliance requirements and improve the overall review process efficiency.  Currently, a customer filing could be repeatedly rejected by one plan examiner and sail through the process when reviewed by a different plan examiner, yielding an arbitrary, seemingly random review process.

4. Enhance Overall User Experience

DoB promises to hire ten project advocates as a free resource to help customers navigate the construction process.  The stated goal is to diminish customers’ need to hire private expediters.  Project Advocates are slated to be the single point of contact within the DoB to resolve a project’s technical and operational issues.  The DoB recently started a pilot program to offer after-hours and weekend inspections for a small fee. In addition, the Agency announced that it plans to seek legislative approval for a more equitable fee structure that would make fees proportional to the scope of work (i.e., fees for homeowners would be lower than fees for large, commercial developments).  Finally, the DoB included an effort to redesign the borough offices ostensibly to improve the flow of visitors and project files.