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The Law Was Aimed at Deadly Machinery. It Hit Her Washer.

The New York Times logo The New York Times 9/9/2019 Grace Ashford

In the 14 months after a $1,600 ticket for work in her basement, Jean Harrow received five more for 'failure to comply' with the first: $15,600 in additional fines.

In the 14 months after a $1,600 ticket for work in her basement, Jean Harrow received five more for 'failure to comply' with the first: $15,600 in additional fines.
© New York City Department of Buildings

When Jean Harrow got a ticket in 2016 for unauthorized renovations to her Queens home, she thought it was a misunderstanding. Yes, she had put a powder room in her basement without realizing she needed a permit. But surely, she said, she wasn’t responsible for the washer and dryer a previous owner had installed downstairs — illegally, according to the $1,600 citation. She would simply explain that at her hearing.

As she waited to do just that, Ms. Harrow got a second ticket — for “failure to comply” with the first. In the 14 months after the original citation, she received five others for the same issue: $15,600 in additional fines. Each meant another hearing, and although she never missed a court date, the tickets kept coming.

Thousands of small property owners in New York City have been hit with a similar pileup of fines, an unintended result of a decade-long crackdown set off by fatal construction accidents. In recent years, the city’s Buildings Department has hired hundreds of new inspectors and doled out harsher penalties for violators. But rules introduced as a safeguard have become a costly trap for ordinary people, The New York Times found.

A review of public and internal records, and interviews with current and former city employees, reveal that some of the toughest punishments have had less to do with property owners’ flouting safety rules than with their confusion over how to respond to that first ticket. Any delay or misstep can lead to a series of fines that will snowball until the owner certifies that the violation has been set right. But the path to certification takes time — and money.

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Before filing a certification, homeowners must have the condition fixed, which often begins with paying for a permit. But before they can get the permit, they must pay additional civil penalties, incurred alongside the fines for construction issues. Until the civil penalties are paid, owners will receive one fine after another for failing to comply.

“You have to use your mortgage money to pay them; you have to use your light-bill money, your gas money,” said Ms. Harrow, 72, a retired bank clerk. “It’s like they want you to be homeless.”

The agency has increasingly issued tickets for failing to comply — tens of millions of dollars in fines each year, records show. Enforcement has been a priority for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who as a Democratic presidential candidate has played up his record on housing. The number of these successive tickets shot up in the 2018 fiscal year to over 16,000 from about 9,700 the year before. In 2014, when Mr. de Blasio took office, the number was close to 5,200.

For nearly a decade, a majority of those fines have been imposed not on mega-landlords caught harassing tenants with construction, or developers whose inattention contributes to worker deaths, but owners of one- to four-family homes who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of the building code — people like Ms. Harrow.

In small print, amid references to sections of the administrative code, tickets instruct owners to “timely correct” violations, without explaining what would be considered timely, or specifying that the city can issue failure-to-comply tickets every 60 days in the meantime. And although hundreds of languages are spoken in New York, the instructions appear only in English.

The Buildings Department defended the noncompliance citations, saying that illegal work could be dangerous, even fatal, for owners, tenants and neighbors.

“We promised New Yorkers that we’d take aggressive action against those who put themselves and others at risk, and that is exactly what we’re doing,” said a department spokesman, Joseph Soldevere. He acknowledged that failure-to-comply tickets could be burdensome, but said the agency was forced to issue them, describing the matter as an unintended consequence of local and state law.

But some current and former lawyers said the agency’s aggressive approach was also to blame. They said more and more violations were being written as Class 1, the severest designation, putting respondents at risk of noncompliance tickets. And opportunities to educate property owners about the process have been squandered, they said.

Ten current and former Buildings Department lawyers and inspectors, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation by department officials, expressed concern about the agency’s practices. Nearly a dozen lawyers have left over the past two years amid union turmoil; some who spoke to The Times cited the agency’s enforcement policies as among their reasons for quitting. Indeed, the turnover has been so extensive that only two hearing lawyers have been with the unit longer than 24 months.

Lawyers for the department also denounced its approach in an internal memo in July of last year, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. They wrote that the policies were being applied in “confiscatory” ways, focusing on minor offenses and diverting resources from more serious ones.

The people receiving tickets are usually not blameless. Inspections showed, for instance, that Joe Corsini built a pigeon coop on his roof in Maspeth, Queens, without a permit, and that Emilene Petrus violated city orders to stop renovating and vacate her home in Queens Village.

But the additional fines — ranging from $800 to $25,000 apiece — can quickly overshadow the cost of the original citation. Mr. Corsini got two tickets for the coop, then four more for failing to comply while he was trying to legalize the structure. Ms. Petrus has received more than 50 failure-to-comply tickets since 2009 and owes the city roughly $1 million, records show.

Mr. Soldevere, the spokesman, acknowledged that small property owners received a majority of noncompliance citations, but said it was because developers had more incentives and resources to fix violations immediately. “Our mission is to promote safety in each of the city’s 1.1 million buildings,” he said, “single-family homes and skyscrapers alike.”

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‘It Looks Good on Paper’

The process is typically set in motion when the city receives a complaint about a property, often from a neighbor, and sends an inspector who will issue a ticket if anything is amiss. Tickets list a hearing date and instruct owners to fix the violation and certify the correction in a timely manner. But, lawyers for the agency said, owners often misunderstand “timely” to mean after the decision at the hearing — by which point, in many cases, it is already too late. Owners may wait months for their cases to be resolved; all the while, the agency can keep issuing new tickets.

The city is required to reinspect “immediately hazardous” conditions within 60 days, a mandate of a law passed in 2009 after two fatal crane collapses. The law was described as “a major economic incentive for construction companies to correct violations.” But two years later, a state audit found that the 60-day deadline was rarely met. The agency picked up the pace, issuing thousands of tickets and penalties, many of which went to small property owners.

Under Mr. De Blasio, New York has poured tens of millions of dollars into the Buildings Department: upgrading technology, hiring more inspectors, emphasizing enforcement metrics. The number of failure-to-comply tickets issued to owners of one- to four-family homes doubled between 2014 and 2018, while the manpower devoted to prosecuting cases stayed roughly the same. In April, records show, as many as 800 hearings a day were scheduled for just 11 legal representatives. Since then, the department said, the unit has more than doubled, with 27 lawyers on staff.

As early as 2016, agency lawyers reported that homeowners were being snared by a system that made no distinction between big and small, with serious consequences. The city ignored their warnings, they said.

“For years they knew about the trends,” said Vivian Currie, former supervising lawyer for the department. “It looks good on paper.”

In the 2018 memo, lawyers said the deluge of minor cases “prevents the department from the proper targeting of repeat and serious offenders.” Arguing that scrutiny fell disproportionately on small property owners, the lawyers pointed to Olanrewaju Olufemi, an accountant who said he was living in another state and renting out his Queens home when an inspector arrived in 2010.

A renovated garage and bathroom, which Mr. Olufemi and his wife said they considered a “bonus” when they bought the home, lacked the proper permits, an inspector said. By the time Mr. Olufemi learned of the violation, in 2014, he had been issued three tickets for the renovations — and two dozen more for failing to comply. The bill at the time was about $200,000.

“I just could not believe my eyes,” Mr. Olufemi said.

To stop getting tickets, Mr. Olufemi needed a permit that would make the renovations legal. But first he needed to pay thousands of dollars in civil penalties. When he couldn’t, the tickets kept coming. Today he owes $495,800, records show — close to the value of his home.

“Clearly, a small building owner such as Mr. Olufemi should not be dumped into the category of serious public offenders,” the memo said.

Six weeks later, the lawyers got a response from the deputy commissioner, Alexandra Fisher: The agency was merely enforcing the laws as written.

Before the unit was expanded, high turnover among lawyers left the city struggling to prosecute violations as inspectors’ ranks ballooned. Because there weren’t enough lawyers to attend every hearing, some proceedings moved forward without them. This could be a boon to respondents who had representation, but hurt those who didn’t: The few minutes a homeowner spent facing a Buildings Department lawyer was a rare opportunity to ask questions about the charges.

‘Low-Hanging Fruit’

Inspectors tasked with re-examining immediately hazardous violations — a category that includes the reckless handling of heavy machinery, as well as Mr. Olufemi’s bathroom, Mr. Corsini’s pigeon coop and Ms. Harrow’s washing machine — issue failure-to-comply tickets based on computer-generated reports of properties whose owners haven’t yet certified that the problems are fixed.

Although the law requires the city to reinspect underlying hazardous conditions, the city acknowledged that inspectors did not always wait to gain access to properties before issuing failure-to-comply tickets. They simply posted new tickets on the door if owners weren’t home.

But not reinspecting means the city won’t know if a hazardous condition has worsened. It also means property owners miss out on a face-to-face interaction that could help them understand how to resolve the issue quickly and avoid debt.

Another result, some agency lawyers said, is that the unit spends less time on construction companies, as the law intended. Take T. G. Nickel & Associates, a firm recently acquired by Consigli, whose portfolio included luxury condominiums and skyscrapers worth hundreds of millions of dollars. City documents provided to The Times show that between October 2017 and October 2018, T. G. Nickel received 100 tickets for immediately hazardous work-site issues — more than any other contractor in New York for that period. Many tickets were for repeat violations. But just two were for failing to comply; other big developers among the city’s worst offenders had similarly low numbers.

One explanation, the Buildings Department said, is that hazardous construction sites are more likely to lead to stop-work orders than noncompliance fines. When they do, contractors generally respond quickly to avoid additional penalties. Construction professionals are also more likely to hire lawyers, which can make their cases more complicated and expensive for the city to pursue.

“It seems like they just pick the easy, low-hanging fruit,” Petr Benimovich, a former Buildings Department lawyer, said of the agency.

Mr. Soldevere, the department spokesman, disagreed, saying the fines were meant to deter dangerous behavior. The safety law “compels us to enforce in this way,” he said. “The city does not have discretion.”

At the same time, disputes between the lawyers’ union and leaders within the agency have created more turbulence. Some of the lawyers who left cited a hostile work environment and understaffing; others complained that managers refused to hear their concerns.

Mr. Currie, 44, who resigned last year as the unit’s supervising lawyer after working for the city for 15 years, said he left for ethical reasons.

The agency’s practices, he said, were devised to give the impression that the city was “holding the bad actors or violators to account.” He added, “On its face, this whole thing of aggressively penalizing average people is shameful.”

The Cost of Correcting

Ms. Harrow admits she made a mistake: She should have sought a permit to install the toilet and sink that piggybacked on plumbing already in her laundry room. But, she said she told the inspector, “I didn’t run those pipes — I bought it like this.”

To correct the violation, Ms. Harrow needed to have the unauthorized plumbing removed. Before she could get the permit, however, she had to pay a $1,500 civil penalty.

Pulling the money together took months. The receipt for the payment was lost, then found. Her permit request was rejected several times, because of errors a plumber had made on the application. She received another fine during this period.

At Ms. Harrow’s final hearing, the agency lawyer reduced two fines imposed after the permit came through. But Ms. Harrow was on the hook for the rest. Besides losing the bathroom, she would be out $13,100 in fines plus interest, as well as permit costs, plumbers’ fees, two taxi fares, and a washer and dryer. A different permit would have allowed her to keep the laundry room, but the process would have been even more expensive.

“Now I have to be pushing a cart to go to the wash,” she said. “I have rheumatoid arthritis.”

Ms. Harrow said she tried to put $50 a month toward the fines. “But sometimes, to tell you the truth, I can’t make it.”

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