Just last week, Chair of the Senate Committee on Investigations & Government Operations Senator James Skoufis released a 106 page document which outlined the code enforcement practices in New York State along with Senator Brian Kavanagh, Chair of the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction, and Community Development. The investigative team who worked on the report’s composition looked into four municipalities: City of Albany, City of Newburgh, City of Mount Vernon, and Town of Ramapo. According to the report, the investigation found a “systemic failure to prioritize code enforcement at all levels of government,” along with a “culture of poor compliance [that] has spread, plaguing communities throughout the State.”
To put it simply, it was uncovered that both state and local governments have not adequately enforced New York housing codes, thus resulting in a toxic culture that has negatively affected and disenfranchised various residents across the state.
The team found a failure to comply with the Uniform Code, which the report describes as “a regulation that prescribes requirements on building and construction within New York State.” Any local government must work with the standards of the Uniform Code, which are established by the Department of State.
The code enforcement process was evaluated by the team from start to finish-- to how a violation is initially brought to code enforcement departments to how it manifests in court. Testimony was used from representatives from each municipality, first responders, the Department of State, landlords, and tenants in order to “determine how to adjust state practices to better serve New Yorkers.”
The investigative team requested information and documents like inspection data, history of summons and violations, and standard operating procedures relating to investigating complaints from each municipality. The team additionally met with municipal officials, the State Division of Building Standards & Codes, tenant rights organizations, firefighter and builders coalitions, and landlord associations. The report also notes that members of the investigation team participated in “rides along with police officers and code officials as well as observing the adjudication process of code court in each of the four municipalities.”
The report concluded that while some municipalities lacked the resources to adequately enforce building codes, others appeared to lack “the desire” to enforce them. It noted that “without credibility, the status quo of ‘act now, ask for forgiveness later’ persists.”
As for the City of Newburgh, the report found that the city has 4,487 residential properties and 1,087 business and commercial properties within its jurisdiction. Between January 1 2017 and February 28 2019, the Newburgh Code Department had completed 5,948 inspections, which resulted in 8,615 summons and code violations. Of those total violations, approximately 125 cases resulted in default judgments.
The investigation team reported that “despite multiple requests for the provision of policies and procedures, the Newburgh Code Department failed to provide the investigative team with the standard operating procedures of the Department for inspections and violations.”
The report disclosed that the City of Newburgh’s issues included “an inadequate record keeping system for code enforcement cases, a lack of registered agents for limited liability company property owners, insufficient fines, a need for more substantive training of code enforcement officials, inadequate procedures to address vacant buildings and an overall lack of resources available to assist code enforcement officers perform their duties.”
It was concluded that the municipalities investigated had inadequate training for code enforcement personnel and recordkeeping for tracking code cases. The report also discerned that there were insufficient penalties for violations of code, along with difficulties associated with properties owned by LLCs, persistent vacant and abandoned buildings, an upsurge in illegally converted properties, excessive delays and adjournments of cases, and an overall lack of resources and support available to assist code enforcement programs.
The report additionally noted that as soon as the investigative team made their presence known, they suddenly witnessed improvements in code enforcement of several of the municipalities.
It was described in the report that “open code cases that stretched months, even years, were adjudicated immediately. Properties that were abandoned for months were placarded and vacated. Noticeable violations that were previously ignored were addressed. Most notably, the City of Newburgh, for the first time in a decade, issued warrants against a landlord regarding open violations.”
Only two days after the investigative report was released by Skoufis, the City of Newburgh posted a job opening for a new Code Compliance Supervisor on its website. The City’s Building and Code Enforcement Department did not respond to an immediate request for comment.
“Code enforcement is an issue that touches every single person in our state. It is not overly dire to say that more first responders and more residents will perish from dangerous conditions if code enforcement is not better prioritized in New York State. We can do a lot better and I’m hopeful this report will shine a light on state and municipal shortcomings, compel more comprehensive enforcement, and inform legislation that will drastically improve the lives of all New Yorkers,” said Senator Skoufis in statement.
Senator Kavanagh seemed to echo his colleague’s statement on this matter. “New York is suffering a crisis of housing quality and affordability. This investigation has demonstrated that one reason many New Yorkers are living in poor quality housing is the failure at all levels of government to ensure effective enforcement of housing, building, and fire codes,” he added.
Recommendations in the report to improve code enforcement include (but are not limited to) financial assistance to local governments, filling vacancies on the Code Council, Department of State reforms, minimum statewide penalties for violations, cracking down on illegal housing, adequate remedies for noncompliance, vacant and abandoned building reforms; and county government intervention.