Good Housekeeping

In its ongoing effort to reform the Department of Buildings in the wake of the two crane accidents earlier this year, the City Council passed three new pieces of legislation yesterday cracking down on what the council considers minor but important issues within the construction industry. The three bills passed by a unanimous vote of 45-0.

The first bill (text) tackles so-called housekeeping violations, basically the order and cleanliness of a given worksite. “There is a direct correlation between sites with housekeeping violations and serious life-threatening accidents,” Council Speaker Christine Quinn said during today’s meeting. “We believe that by policing these sites, we can keep them from going down this path.”

The bill categorizes any housekeeping violations, such as tripping hazards, unsecured material, or unsafe storage of combustibles, as “immediately hazardous,” the highest level of violation. This means that such a violation will trigger a stop-work order and can result in fines if not addressed. Quinn put it simply: “When materials are not taken care of, they can injure people. We want that to stop.”

The next bill (text) addresses problems with vacant buildings, which, if unoccupied for over five years, will be inspected for structural soundness, with follow-up inspections occurring every five years. If violations or unsafe conditions are discovered, the owner is required to address them immediately or face fines.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, the representative for East Harlem and the lead sponsor on the bill, proposed the action after two such buildings in her district collapsed. “When we talk about construction safety, we shouldn’t just be talking about new construction and work sites but also existing buildings, and especially those that have been neglected,” Mark-Viverito said.

The final bill (text) requires that retaining walls be regulated in the same manner as building facades, putting them under increased scrutiny, oversight, and safety restrictions that strengthen the city’s ability to induce necessary repairs. Councilmember Robert Jackson, who introduced the bill, noted that it was long overdue, after the collapse of a retaining wall three years ago in his district, but he was happy to have it finally pass. “This legislation is a no-brainer,” Jackson said.

But if that was the case, then why did it, and all the other recent reforms, require a disaster to finally pass them? Councilmember Tony Avella, an industry critic, chocked it up to politics, adding that a great deal more work remains to be done. “These are good bills,” Avella said, “but there are a number of good bills and initiatives that are languishing in the DOB due to a lack of action on the part of the Speaker.”

A spokesperson for Quinn declined to address Avella’s complaints, but did say: “The bills passed are part of an extensive review of the construction safety in the city. We have passed several bills so far, and several will be passed in the near future.”

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