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To the Rescue

I could have cheered. The buildings department finally came through.

I admit it: I’ve been a big critic of the Department of Buildings (DOB). Its employees seem to drag their feet in responding to concerns or complaints; contacting the agency by phone seems impossible; and a visit to the DOB has sometimes seemed like a descent into Dante’s Inferno, with less-than-helpful folks mocking you all along the way.

Expecting more of the same, I girded my loins and prepared for my latest adventure in the nine circles of hell. My small building had a big problem: we had to get the DOB to shut down some unauthorized work being performed by a subtenant who had the lease on our commercial space. He had gotten a work permit — posted in the window, natch — by signing off as the owner of the building.

We, on the board, cried, “Fraud!”

Our attorney, ever diligent, said, “Not so fast!” He added: “I note that the code seems to define ‘owner’ to include anybody who has an ‘interest’ in the property.”

That seemed like crazy talk. Could I claim to be the owner of Habitat magazine? Certainly, after 32 years, I have an “interest” in it. I suppose it depends on how you define interest.

Are we talking about “a feeling of wanting to learn more about something or to be involved in something”? Not quite. Or is it “something (such as a hobby) that a person enjoys learning about or doing”? Probably not. Or how about a “right, title, or legal share in something”? Now that’s the ticket. Our co-op certainly has the right, title, or legal share in something, i.e., the commercial space. What could be simpler?

Happily, our engineer agreed with us. “The form is intended to be signed by the building owner. It should not be signed by a tenant or subtenant,” he wrote us. “A managing agent for a building can sign, but they are usually given this ability to act on their client’s behalf in their managing agreement. Generally, we do not even see managing agents sign – it is usually the board president. No one here is aware of any ruling allowing the tenant to sign.”

Armed with the facts and with the truth on our side, one of the board members went to the DOB with our complaint on a Friday. And, surprisingly, he got to see a commissioner who told him we needed to put our complaint in writing. We did so, and on the very next Tuesday, I delivered a letter alerting the DOB of the situation. I handed it to a secretary and briefly explained its contents. She listened politely, and then said, “Do you have any proof that you’re the owners? It’s just your word against his.”

It seemed bizarre, but there was something to what she said. How, then, do we prove ownership? Our lawyer suggested I take a trip to the Department of Records, down in the Wall Street area, to get a copy of our deed. I dutifully traveled down there. I had a number of hurdles to overcome, starting with a metal detector that wouldn’t quit (I had a lot of hidden metal on me) and ending with a clerk who gave new meaning to the word “unhelpful.”

But, in the end, I got the document and quickly e-mailed a copy to the DOB secretary who had first raised the question. Wary about where the document would end up, I included a note asking the young woman to confirm receipt. Two days went by. No reply. Worried that my document had ended up in the DOB memory hole, I again e-mailed the request. This time, I got an acknowledgment.

Now we had to wait.

It wasn’t long. Within days of that last acknowledgment, we got an angry phone call from the alleged “owner” protesting our action. Bingo! The DOB had canceled his permit and placed a “stop work” order on the project.

It was one battle in a longer war, but it felt sweet. Sometimes the good guys win.

Thank you, DOB.

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