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Untangling a Web of Violations

Buildings with old bones often have weird configurations where the boiler room shares space with gas, water and electric connections. Does that present special challenges when it comes to complying with city codes?

We have a 48-unit townhouse that has six separate “pods,” as I call them. Each pod has a separate mechanical room that includes the boiler, meters and hot water heater for eight units. We received a violation a year or so ago that we had to put in a backflow preventer in one room, which happens to be on the second floor. It was very difficult to design it for this space, but it was done, and it was installed. 


Usually these are just an automatic sign-off by the city, but the Department of Buildings (DOB) chose this one for audit. I believe they’ve been targeting this building because historically there have been multiple violations and abuses of Airbnb rentals in these apartments. The DOB came out to inspect and claimed the original construction was illegal and not in accordance with code and that we had not filed a permit for the hot water heater. We received four violations. They called in Con Ed, and within a matter of hours all the heating gas was shut off, but the cooking gas remained. This was in early March, and the building was left without heat and hot water for the eight units within that pod. 


So you had quite a mess on your hands. What were your next steps? 

We spoke with the plumber who had installed the backflow preventer and the mechanical engineer who designed it. The plumber said, “This has nothing to do with the preventer, and I had nothing to do with the original construction, so I’m out of here.” The mechanical engineer basically said the room was not in accordance with code, and we had to fix it. I maintain the position that the building was built in accordance with code 20 years ago, and we received all the final sign-offs on the original construction permits, and I wanted to contest the violations. 


What were your next steps? 

The mechanical engineer brought in an expediter who went to the city to find the original plans for the building. And lo and behold, those happened to be missing. So it just went from bad to worse. In the meantime, we had the residents in the building calling the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) saying the building wasn’t providing them with hot water. So we brought in a plumber to put in an electric hot water heater. The hot water heater was limited, so we ended up bringing in an instant heater, but then we kept tripping the breaker. We’ve now provided access to the boiler room through a lockbox so that residents in the building can go and reset the breaker when it trips.


So we had two trains running because we were also pursuing this with the expediters, plumbers and engineers. We brought in another engineer who was going to come up with a new design. I was with the new engineer one day, and someone from HPD’s Emergency Services Group was there to talk to us about why we’re not providing heat and hot water to the residents. I said, “We would love to, but it’s your city that turned off the gas.” We’re getting violation after violation for not providing hot water. And yet our hands were tied until our hearing with the city, which wasn’t until May. So this gentleman asked if we wanted him to report the situation to the emergency repair division, which means the city will put out to bid what needs to be done to remedy the situation. I asked if we were obligated, because I didn’t want to get someone in there who was then going to charge us $100,000 to fix the situation. He said, “No, no, they’ll communicate with you.” So I said, “Sure, go ahead.” 


And did someone from the program get back to you?

One of the plumbers they had reached out to texted me on a Sunday asking if he could have access to the building that day. Luckily, he seems to have been around for a long time and knew how to navigate the city. He read the violations and said that other than the one about a hot water heater being installed without the proper permit, which is not difficult to remedy, the rest were bogus violations. The next day I got a 12-page document with a letter from him with all the supporting documentation from approved permits from 20 years ago. Simultaneous to this, we happened to have a lunch-and-learn with a boiler company, and some of the principals introduced us to an attorney who could help us out. 


Where are you with the gas shutdown problem?

The only issue that the engineer said we had to address was reconfiguring this valve with the gas hookups. Unfortunately, that did not pass the Con Ed pressure test. So he’s re-piping some of the gas lines, which is not significant. 


So now you have your hearing coming up. 

We had the May hearing, but the inspector didn’t show up, which is normal. I believe they have to show up the second time, and we have another one coming up. I hope that we will have the gas on before that once the plumber reruns the gas lines. So one of the challenges now is also going to be the cost of the violations, which are significant and keep adding up.


Is this the first time you’ve encountered this situation? Is it a common occurrence?

Well, I’ve been in the business for almost 20 years, and I’ve never dealt with something like this. The manager I work with on this building and the plumbers have never seen this. The plumber who is helping us now said that these violations are becoming more and more common because the city is looking to collect money every which way. But no one has encountered something with this much complexity and unfairness.


At the end of the day, how much will the co-op spend to rectify what could be a very minor problem?

We’re already out $11,000 for one engineer who actually hasn’t gotten anywhere, so we’re trying to get some of that money back. I’m going to say certainly it depends on where the violations go. It could be certainly north of $20,000. If all these violations stick, it could run significantly more than that, but I’m going to keep my fingers crossed.

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