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Co-Op Boards Must Ensure Shareholders Obtain Necessary Permits for Renovations

Kevin Bone
Bone/Levine Architects

“Boards must be clear about what kind of work they will allow without a building permit”

Approving shareholder renovation work is ultimately a board’s decision, and when it comes to permits, board members must do their homework. The first step is to seek guidance from a reviewing architect, who will know precisely what permits are required for the proposed work. Making sure shareholders secure them is crucial because fines and violations for incorrect permits are recorded against the building rather than the shareholder — and they can quickly add up. Kevin Bone, a co-founder of Bone Levine Architects, frequently takes on the role of reviewing architect when advising boards on whether they should allow renovations to move forward as proposed or get additional information and professional support. 

When Shareholders Want To Shortcut Permit Filing

Bone recently dealt with a situation at an Upper West Side co-op where a shareholder wanted to renovate the kitchen and the bathroom. Hoping to shortcut the permit filing, the shareholder submitted only the contractor’s proposal for the work. “There’s often a lot of boilerplate language in these contractors’ proposals, which generally describe the project,” Bone says. “But what is not so clear is who is ultimately responsible.”

Accountability matters because if unexpected conditions arise during the construction phase, there needs to be a qualified professional, such as an architect or an engineer, who will take responsibility for the problems — and solve them. “Even a modest renovation will likely bump up against things that may require a Department of Buildings review or the intervention of a professional to make a decision about it,” Bone says.

Consider this scenario: In the course of opening up the walls to do the kitchen and bathroom renovations, the plumber might find fire-stopping deficiencies or other code-compliance issues, and would not be in a position to determine how they would best be corrected. If work is found to be done without the correct permits and there isn’t a clear line of responsibility, it’s the board that has to pay. “Because the penalties and the fines are rendered toward the building and not toward the individual shareholder, this could become a big complication for the building,” Bone says. 

In this case, the shareholder’s renovation proposal lacked clarity on who would be ultimately responsible for the work and who would have to file the necessary permits. Bone tried to get the missing information from the shareholder and was told the plumber would take responsibility by filing an application for a limited alteration permit, which is issued by the Department of Buildings (DOB) for relatively minor plumbing projects. 

“There are fairly strict rules about what you can and can’t do under a limited alteration application,” Bone explains. “When we reviewed the plans, we concluded that this project crossed the threshold and required a more comprehensive work permit.” 

Requesting an Architect’s Letter Protects the Building

Still, the shareholder pushed back, insisting that the work was just changing out plumbing fixtures. A key reason shareholders want to skirt permits is that filing comes with additional costs, and they don’t want to foot the bill. “Basic architectural coverage and filing is going to be in the neighborhood of $5,000, and if the work is more complicated, it could cost more,” Bone says. 

To break the impasse, the co-op board took a tried-and-true approach: asking the shareholder to produce a letter from an architect or an engineer stating that the project was indeed a minor one that only required a limited alteration application or no permit at all. When the work is more extensive, “it’s not so easy to get professionals to sign off,” Bone says. “Asking for the letter becomes a strategy for the board to ensure that shareholders have the required permits.” Sure enough, the shareholder was unable to produce the necessary letter. The board stood its ground and required the shareholder to engage an architect and agree to file the project with the DOB to get the proper permits. 

Insist On Professional Approval for Renovations

The takeaway is that boards need to be very clear about what kind of work they will allow to proceed without a building permit. “What happens is the shareholder goes down the road, engages with the contractor, has multiple meetings, spends their time, develops expectations, and then they get shut down at the board level and get frustrated,” Bone says. It’s also essential that boards follow a clear and consistent protocol when dealing with renovations. “If you allow one shareholder to do it one way and another shareholder to do it another way, I think you could be getting in trouble,” he says.

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