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Lawmakers scrutinize state’s role in building code oversight

Joe Mahoney, CNHI State Reporter
Posted 11/9/22

Inadequate enforcement of building codes has had tragic consequences in New York, with lives of occupants and first responders lost in deadly fires linked to unsafe conditions.

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Lawmakers scrutinize state’s role in building code oversight

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ALBANY — Inadequate enforcement of building codes has had tragic consequences in New York, with lives of occupants and first responders lost in deadly fires linked to unsafe conditions, according to advocates for local government inspectors.

“Most municipalities look at code enforcement as the grass and garbage police,” said Steven McDaniel, chairman of the International Code Council’s building code committee and the chief code enforcer for the city of Corning.

Testifying before a panel of state lawmakers, McDaniel suggested one way to ensure code enforcement operations can offer sufficient protection is to institute minimum staffing levels.

“It’s not done currently, and it could be done to stop that one-man sharing, or one-woman sharing eight or 12 different jurisdictions,” he said. “You’re not getting proper code enforcement. We can all agree on that.”

McDaniel also suggested that steps be taken to set minimum credentials for building inspectors.

“Make it a true profession,” he said. He noted New York requires hairdressers to be overseen by the state Office of Professions, though code enforcers do not get the same level of regulation,

The state Assembly Committee on Government Operations, led by Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, D-Rockland County, is examining the administration of building code enforcement. Building inspections are services provided by local governments — though the State Department of State, through its division of building standards and codes, has an oversight role.

How well building codes are enforced can have major impacts on the quality of life in local communities.

“This is an issue that may seem dry on paper, but it’s anything but that when you talk about how it affects our communities,” Zebrowski said.

“The enforcement, or the lack thereof, of our building codes, the conduct of landlords, the conduct of tenants, at times can lead to extremely dangerous situations for citizens and tenants, and for the first responders called upon in an emergency,” the lawmaker said.

The adequacy of building code enforcement has been a concern of lawmakers for several years.

In 2019, the state Senate Investigations Committee produced a report that concluded local building departments do not get the resources and the support they need from the New York state to be effective.

The committee found that fire insurance fees collected by insurance companies had at one point been distributed to the code enforcement agencies to help them with their mission, but eventually got swept into the state’s general fund.

“That distribution of these funds has been halted, notwithstanding the manifest need, illustrates the neglect of code enforcement at the state level,” that report bluntly stated.

At the hearing held this week, Zebrowski noted that the Secretary of State’s office, an agency controlled by Gov. Kathy Hochul, did not send a representative. Zebrowski said he believes the agency will submit written testimony at a later date.

David Kagle, supervising attorney for Legal Services of Western New York, said in his testimony the Secretary of State’s office has neglected its responsibility to set minimum standards for building code enforcement.

He lamented low-income tenants in some cases are finding themselves without homes after asking local building inspectors to examine the condition of their rental units.

Because the Secretary of State has not issued minimum enforcement standards, building inspectors in some cases condemn the building in question, instead of seeking court orders requiring owners to make repairs, with tenants being forced out of their homes without due process of law, Kagle said.

Kagle said he attended a conference of legal advocates for tenants recently and learned his colleagues were experiencing similar outcomes harming tenants who had complained about the unsafe conditions of their apartments.

“The tenants end up homeless in all likelihood” after lodging the complaints, the lawyer said, adding. “That’s not what we’re shooting for. We’re shooting for repairs.”

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