Condominium associations, whether housed in a single building or in a sprawling development, provide a reliably cozy and comfortable community in which to live. But this comfort requires vigilance on the part of both board and management to ensure that the various and sundry components up to code, which can feel daunting for those on the more inexperienced side.
In New York City, the classic high-rises and skyscrapers that make our metropolis the icon it is also pose a serious threat to safety, should an errant brick or other structure dislodge itself from a property's facade or rooftop. There's no uniform code of standards to which condo associations far and wide can look to for information. Statutes vary state to state, city to city, and municipality to municipality—so a board must stay abreast of the precise standards that apply to its type of property and the area in which that property resides. In New York City, safety inspections are imperative, and are strictly regulated by the city's Department of Buildings (DOB). And such inspections encapsulate much more than just the exteriors: various interior systems must adhere to specific regulations as well. If this all sounds like a lot of which to stay on top, that's because, well... it could be. But with a dedicated board, a qualified property management company, skillful vendors and access to information, maintaining a safe and sturdy co-op or condo can actually be easier done than said.
While staring down a litany of building-specific legalities can seem daunting—especially for the average board member, who is most likely a volunteer without substantial engineering or architectural experience—there are fortunately resources available that can make the whole thing significantly easier than it might be otherwise. As Harold Krongelb, president of Heimer Engineering, PC in Brooklyn, will vouch, the city has done a pretty exemplary job of making its information accessible online. “The city has made a remarkable effort of putting all of its pertinent info online,” Krongelb says. “You can go to NYC.gov and easily find an appropriate vendor, whatever your potential issue. Anyone who can’t surmise the answer to their real estate problem there probably does not actually want to see it solved.”
Alexander Schnell, the press secretary for the New York City Department of Buildings, concurs, and points readers to several hot topics of which associations should stay abreast, including cooling tower registration, elevator, boiler, and facade inspections, and energy efficiency reporting.
And it should be noted that, while the city strives to make its information as accessible as possible for managers and associations, inspections are not a passive, automatic process. “It is the responsibility of the property ownership to ensure that tests, reports, and inspections are performed and submitted to the department as required in each section [of the website],” explains Schnell. “In addition, the owner is responsible for curing any conditions that are in violation of the building code, and maintaining the property in a safe manner at all times.”
Along with the Department of Buildings’ official site, there are various other resources that can help a proactive association deal with the daunting world of safety inspections. Martin Kera, an attorney and property manager with Bren Management Group, recommends but a few—including The Cooperator—as well as the RSA Newsletter, and a book called The Apartment Law Checklist.
The frequency of inspections depends on the particular area that needs be inspected, as well as the size of the property. T. Austin Brown, an attorney with The Austin Brown Law Firm in Manhattan, breaks it down:
“The New York City Department of Buildings regulates the safety of constructions and alteration of buildings. It also requires registration and filings related to annual boiler inspections, annual elevator inspections, and, once every five years, ‘Local Law 11’ inspections. Local Law 11 (now called the Façade Inspection Safety Program or FISP), applies to buildings six stories high and counting, and requires an inspection of the entire envelope of the building to determine if there are unsafe conditions, such as loose bricks. Note also that cooling towers, as part of the building’s air conditioning system, must now be registered due to a recent outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease.”
Inspections are no joke—they're a matter of serious concern in regard to public safety, and as such, the penalties for ignoring them can be steep. If found during a report to have violated any building code, an association risks being hit with a heavy fine that can put a serious dent in its coffers.
“Elevator violations can result in a $1,000 fine,” says Brown, “and boilers can lead to $1,500 annually. Failure to comply with the aforementioned Local Law 11 once every half-decade will bleed an association $250 per month until it does comply. In addition, Local Law 11 violations can open a co-op to significant tort liability, because you’re dealing with quite dangerous conditions. Recently, a toddler was killed on the Upper West Side by bricks falling from an improperly maintained wall.”
Going beyond fines, if the DOB is alerted to something “quite egregious,” as Brown puts it, an owner or board member can find him- or herself staring down actual criminal charges. “I remember that in one board meeting, one of the members became concerned that she could face criminal liability if there weren’t window guards in all of that building’s apartments,” recalls Brown. “Now, this is not true, but I’m not sure that I was able to convince her otherwise. And there was another case about two years ago where a landlord did face prosecution based on willful refusal to install them.” Brown says he doesn't recall the outcome of that case, but suspects it's what triggered the board member's concerns.
And outside of any city-mandated consequences, failure to safely take care of a condo or co-op property can have serious insurance ramifications as well. “If an insurance company gets wind that an association is skimping on safety concerns, they can pull its insurance entirely—just cancel it,” says Kera. “And fire and safety—heaven forbid that there’s a fire in a building and an association has failed to get its inspections done. Elevators as well—there are a lot of elevator-related issues that an association needs to have an elevator services company cover.”
Spreading the Wealth
While any board should be encouraged to study up and be aware of city codes and ordinances, the burden of maintaining an on-point inspection schedule does not have to fall squarely on its shoulders alone. A qualified property manager can—and should—take on coordination duties, while an engineer or similarly-trained professional can walk a property and advise an association as to what may need a little extra elbow grease prior to inspection time.
In fact, the more that an association can rely on its property manager to handle the day-to-day planning and scheduling and get out of that manager’s way, the better for everyone involved. As Kera puts it, safety inspections are “definitely something that you need a qualified managing agent to handle. I would think that very few laypeople would have the requisite knowledge, unless they worked for the fire department or something else directly related to this type of thing. It can just be too much to stay on top of, for the most part.”
And having someone like Krongelb walk a property and give a report can greatly bolster an association’s chances of passing with flying colors come inspection time. “A lot of what we’re called in to look at are the accessible/observable areas: the wiring, the plumbing structure, water penetration, siding, roofing, hot water systems, etc. And we’ll look at those and say something to the effect of ‘this wiring system is 70 years old, insufficient and hazardous’ or ‘the boiler is old but it’s still functioning, it’s up to you when you want to replace it.’ That kind of guidance. We’re like general practitioners. We’ll evaluate something, and then it’s up to an association to seek out an appropriate specialist.”
At the end of the day, safety inspections for a New York City co-op or condo community is an exercise in self-policing. The information is readily available for the diligent board to seek out; it’s a matter of adhering strictly to said info, and surrounding oneself with a panel of trusted experts who will see to it that safety is prioritized. While it may be possible to save some money in the short term by being lax on what might seem like an unimportant repair, that maintenance issue will grow over time, and could even cause someone bodily harm. In addition to having the potential for injury or even tragedy, such oversights can be sickeningly expensive. 'Better safe than sorry' is only a cliche because it’s quite true, especially when dealing with condo and co-op safety precautions!
Mike Odenthal is a staff writer for The Cooperator.