The head of a City Council task force looking into the Department of Buildings came to a conclusion an hour into its Queens public hearing last week.
“There’s no faith in the integrity of the system,” Staten Island Councilman James Oddo, the chairman of the task force, told the 200 Queens residents at the 2 1/2 hour meeting at P.S. 113 in Glendale on June 21. They came out to register complaints about the department to the task force.
“You hear all the horror stories, and they’re all true,” said Vincent Acuri Jr., chairman of Community Board 5 in Maspeth.
The task force was formed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn at the beginning of the year in response to citizen complaints that the department has been allowing developers to build almost unchecked and is too lax with illegal apartments. Middle Village Councilman Dennis Gallagher is also a member.
The Glendale meeting was the task force’s second public hearing. One was held in the Bronx last month, and another is scheduled for Staten Island in September.
At the Glendale meeting, speaker after speaker charged that the department is failing to prevent dangerous apartment conversions and construction that is out of character with their neighborhoods. “We are losing our neighborhoods block by block, house by house, and something has to be done about it,” said Patricia Dolan, president of the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association.
The major complaint at the meeting was the department’s self certification process. The process was put in place in 1995 to help clear a backlog of applications, and has been instituted successfully in other cities, said department spokeswoman Jennifer Givner.
The process allows state licensed engineers and architects to submit plans without having them reviewed by the department. Half of all building applications are now self certified, Oddo said.
Givner said the policy is meant to stimulate economic development, but participants at the meeting complained it has resulted in widespread zoning violations that go undiscovered until after the buildings are finished. The builders pay a fine, but the structures remain.
Givner noted that the department tries to audit 20 percent of the applications, but Oddo contended that the actual number of audits falls unacceptably short of that mark.
Other participants complained that building owners suffer no penalty if they simply don’t give department inspectors access to investigate complaints of illegal apartments or other violations.
The department’s policy is to close the file on a complaint after two unsuccessful attempts to enter the property, Givner said. “It would be a waste of manpower,” she said, adding that warrants are possible but difficult to obtain.
Maria Thompson, executive director of the Greater Woodhaven Development Corporation, argued that inspectors should be able to gain access if there are clear violations on the property. “When you see three doorbells on a one family home, there’s something wrong,” she said.
But Givner replied that most cases are not that simple. “If the burden of proof were that easy, it wouldn’t be a big deal,” she said. “The burden of proof is much higher than that.”
Some speakers had complaints about specific sites, complete with pictures of the violations.
A proposed yeshiva on 88th Street in Glendale, a few blocks from P.S. 113, was cited by more than one speaker. Neighbors have been arguing since 2004 that the department should not have given permission for construction there, and blamed self certification for the situation.
Oddo said the complaints made at this meeting were very similar to what the task force heard in the Bronx and what he has heard from his own Staten Island constituents.
Once the task force has held all public meetings, it will create a report with recommendations for the department, said Chris DeCicco, a spokesman for Oddo.
He said there have been some proposals in the council to abolish self certification completely, although that would require a larger staff for the department. Another proposal would strip builders of the right to self certify after repeated violations.