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Residential Building Laws & the COVID-19 Pandemic Past Precedents Can Inform Today’s Boards

Editor's note: This article is Part 1 of a two-part series from the authors examining some of the many legal questions and considerations raised by the global pandemic for co-op, condo, and HOA boards, as well as landlords and building owners. Be sure to check back next week for Part 2, which will examine issues of personal privacy, transparency, and disclosure.

The Covid-19 pandemic has confronted owners, managers and boards of New York City multifamily buildings with operational challenges not seen for a hundred years, since the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 swept across the globe. The social distancing rules and restrictions imposed by governments at all levels have raised questions from boards and residents alike about the responsibilities and duties of both the managers and occupants of residential buildings. 

In an effort to look at the short- and long-term legal implications and issues affecting multifamily living during the current pandemic -- and shed light on how past generations coped with similar circumstances -- we researched and analyzed court cases handling similar issues from the past, including the aforementioned Spanish Flu, as well as the Scarlet Fever epidemic of the mid-1800s and today’s COVID-19-related executive orders and federal and state case law and legislation. 

Protecting the Health of Building Occupants

New York multifamily residential dwellings generally fall into three categories: rental, condominium, and cooperative apartment buildings. The primary responsibility of building managers, whether they be owners of rental buildings or the board members or managers of co-ops or condos, is to maintain the health and safety of their buildings and their occupants. According to Torres v. Ragonesi, 83 Misc.2d 84, 370 NYS2d 779 (NYC Civil Court, New York County 1975), the statutes and regulations governing residential buildings in the city provide that “...it is the responsibility of the owner of residential buildings to maintain the building, remove violations and insure that the tenants have habitable premises in which to live.” 

Ownership or management is therefore required to maintain building common areas in compliance with the public health code. (See NYC Administrative Code §17-133 [Penalties] which states, “Every person, corporation, or body that shall violate or not conform to any provisions of the health code of the City of New York, or any rule or sanitary regulation made, shall be liable to pay a penalty not exceeding the maximum amount allowed by the health code of the City of New York.”).

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