JOE MAHONEY'S ALBANY NOTEBOOK: Lawmakers tackle need for more stringent housing code enforcement

Joe Mahoney 

ALBANY — The protective umbrella provided by local governments in New York doesn’t stop with police and fire departments.

Building code inspection departments are important assets in ensuring people are not living in dangerous conditions. There is no way to quantify how many tragedies that code enforcers prevent by requiring that unsafe conditions — be they electrical hazards, shoddy construction or unsanitary eyesores — be fully remedied by property owners.

But as important as local building departments are, they are not getting the resources and the support from New York state government they need to be effective, according to a new report issued by the state Senate Investigations Committee.

The panel is headed by Sen. James Skoufis, D-Woodbury, who discussed the many recommendations the report makes following the committee’s intensive examination of the code enforcement system across the state.

The state once had a workable method for getting money to shore up the local building agencies. Insurance companies were required to collect fire insurance fees from their policyholders, with those funds earmarked for distribution by the state to help local building departments carry out their mission.

But though these fees continue to be collected, the money is now swept into the state’s general fund and the building departments haven’t gotten any of it since 1991, Skoufis said.

As the report itself bluntly notes: “That distribution of these funds has been halted, not withstanding the manifest need, illustrates the neglect of code enforcement at the state level.”

Meanwhile, many building departments for cities, towns and villages are inadequately staffed and don’t have the software that could help them better monitor the properties that have known hazards or haven’t even been inspected.

“Exposed wiring, no means of egress, illegal conversions, absence of smoke detectors and rodent infestations, are just the tip of the iceberg for egregious violations found in homes across New York State,” the report states.

Skoufis noted the report also recommends local departments become more aggressive in carrying out their mission.

“We found that the fines are often just minimal, and you have serious violations that remain open for months and months — sometimes, for years,” the senator said.

Another concern identified by the report is the involvement of limited liability corporations — LLCs — in owning and managing rental properties to generate profit for those corporations’ investors. The concern is that it can be very difficult if not impossible for local government to address code violations when faced with such arrangements, in which the individual investors have taken steps to maintain their anonymity while shielding themselves from personal liability.

“The lack of accountability of LLCs allows violations to persist, contributing to the difficulties of enforcing the Uniform Code for the protection of public health and safety,” the report states.

And while the LLC-owned buildings at times have designated property managers, local judges have often been reluctant to impose fines on any party but the titled owner of the real estate in question, the senator noted.

If the Senate Investigations Committee can restore the spigot of state money that used to flow to municipal building departments, it would be a tremendous benefit to those agencies, said Andy Worden, treasurer of the central New York chapter of the New York State Building Officers Association.

Worden said building departments have been finding it increasingly challenging to recruit and retain code enforcers willing to work for the modest pay that local governments offer.

“I’m looking to hire somebody right now and it is not an easy task, with the salaries being as low as they are,” Worden, the director of planning and zoning for the town of DeWitt, said over the phone.

The inspectors go through extensive training, and some end up moving on to other careers soon after they learn the ropes of what is required to pursue a violation in municipal courts, he said.

“There are just so many things dropped on them,” Worden said.

Skoufis said the remedies that will be pursued, in addition to funding, will include: reforms at the state Department of State, an agency overseen by Gov. Andrew Cuomo; new minimum penalties for violations of building codes; greater accountability over real estate LLCs; and encouraging rental property registries at the municipal government level.

“The fines we have now are supposed to act as a deterrent but they are not,” he said.

For too many property owners, he said, paying paltry fines has become a cost of doing business, suggesting the intent of those penalties — spurring repairs and improvements — is not being achieved.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com