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From the Editor 50: DOB

Nothing Is Simple


Two months ago, I wrote about the difficulty of getting the Department of Buildings (DOB) to send an inspector to our small, 22-unit cooperative. The problem: contractors remodeling a commercial space were working without any posted permits. It should have been simple to solve: send a DOB rep and shut it down.


Nothing is ever simple with the city, however.

As board president, I had called 311, the city’s non-emergency complaint line. I reported the problem and was told that someone would come check it out within a day and a half. When no one – apparently – showed up, we had called again and again. But we could get no response.

Then, earlier this month, one of the shareholders wrote the board: “When I came home at 8:30, there was a very intense turpentine smell throughout the entire apartment. [My wife] was home with the baby since 7:15 and smelled it strongly but was not sure what it was. When I went to see what was going on in the commercial space, two men were doing woodwork in the space and spreading a finish on wood [that] smelled like turpentine… As I write this I can smell it and it is irritating my eye and throat, even with all of the windows open.”

It got worse. The board called 311 again, this time reporting the new problem, and the shareholder called the fire department, reporting a “noxious smell.” Thankfully, someone in municipal government responded quickly: an engine was at the building within three minutes. Unfortunately, that visit proved nothing, at least in the firefighters’ realm of expertise. As the shareholder noted: “They came in full regalia with their chemical detector.  They smelled it, the chemical smell, but there was nothing they could get a reading on. They thought it was a paint thinner or something with polyurethane.”

We were growing concerned, especially since a warning letter to the commercial leaseholder only elicited a strange response. In a phone conversation with one of the board members, he rambled on about the difficulties of dealing with tenants and how he was going to “reclaim” the basement space under his store (to which he had never had any claim and which the co-op was now using, anyway).

Then came a strange meeting with the husband-and-wife shareholders who had lodged the initial complaint. She reported: “The leaseholder buzzed our apartment yesterday evening around 7PM. He requested that we let him in to discuss the situation in the commercial space. We met him downstairs in the hallway and he attempted to explain the work he'd been doing and that it would be mostly finished by Thursday, when he plans to work on the awning.

“He was very casual, indeed cavalier, about the lack of permits. We responded by saying there was nothing we could do at this point and that he should communicate directly with the board and the lawyer. Incidentally, when we mentioned the board, he was very dismissive of the reasons for enforcing the law and pursuing the matter. He even referred to the board in air quotes.”

Even more bizarre was my encounter with some of the workers. I came home one Saturday to find three men working in the commercial space, one with a blowtorch. I asked to see their work permits. After some hemming and hawing, they admitted they didn’t have any. I told them they had to leave the building at once. They nodded their heads, but 15 minutes later, their truck was still parked outside (I guess “at once” means different things to different people.)

For my part, I contacted 311, which took down the information and immediately transferred me to DOB. I reported the situation to them, and was told there would be an inspector out there within a day and a half.

Well, surprise, surprise. Today, the board got a letter from DOB full of dire warnings. Problem was, it was addressed to us, not the commercial tenant. “We are unable to gain access to inspect the building…Please contact [us] to schedule an appointment for an inspection…Failure to make an inspection could result in the Department of Buildings obtaining an access warrant to inspect the premises without your consent…”

In short, we were being browbeaten by DOB for work in the building that we had complained about. As I said, when dealing with the city, nothing is ever simple.


Habitat, December 2013