Senate Report Says Municipalities Need to Prioritize Code Enforcement

Real Estate In-Depth | August 2019

In May, Rockland County celebrated the four-year anniversary of the Rockland Codes Initiative program, From left, South Nyack Mayor Bonnie Christian, State Senator James Skoufis, Rockland County Executive Ed Day, County Attorney Thomas Humbach and Deputy Commissioner of Health Catherine Southren Johnson.

ALBANY—A six-month New York State investigation into code enforcement practices in New York State found systemic failures to prioritize code enforcement at all levels of government.

The State Senate investigative report identified common shortfalls, recommended sweeping legislative and regulatory changes, and urged both municipalities and the state to take code enforcement more seriously. In the meantime, the health and safety of many New Yorkers remain at significant risk, the report released on Aug. 6 stated.

In February 2019, New York State Senator James Skoufis, chair of the Senate Committee on Investigations & Government Operations, in coordination with Senator Brian Kavanagh, chair of the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction, and Community Development, opened an investigation into code enforcement practices in New York State. The investigation included a close examination of four municipalities: the City of Albany, the City of Newburgh, the City of Mount Vernon and Town of Ramapo.

Senator James Skoufis said, “Code enforcement is an issue that touches every single person in our state. It is not overly dire to say that more first responders and more residents will perish from dangerous conditions if code enforcement is not better prioritized in New York State. We can do a lot better and I’m hopeful this report will shine a light on state and municipal shortcomings, compel more comprehensive enforcement, and inform legislation that will drastically improve the lives of all New Yorkers.”

“New York is suffering a crisis of housing quality and affordability. This investigation has demonstrated that one reason many New Yorkers are living in poor quality housing is the failure at all levels of government to ensure effective enforcement of housing, building, and fire codes,” said Senator Kavanagh.

The investigation included an in-depth evaluation of the code enforcement process beginning with how a violation is brought to the attention of code enforcement departments to the final disposition of a code violation in court. The investigative team solicited testimony from representatives from each municipality, first responders, the Department of State, landlords, and tenants in order to determine how to adjust state practices to better serve New Yorkers. In May, the committees held a joint public hearing in the City of Newburgh, the first of its kind, to bring in relevant stakeholders from across the state.

Key findings of the report included: inadequate training for code enforcement personnel; inadequate record keeping for tracking code cases; insufficient penalties for violations; difficulties associated with properties owned by LLCs; persistent vacant and abandoned buildings; an upsurge in illegally converted properties; excessive delays and adjournments of cases and an overall lack of resources and support available to assist code enforcement programs.

Legislative recommendations included: provision of financial assistance to local governments; fulfillment of Code Council vacancies; Department of State reforms; minimum statewide penalties for violations; cracking down on illegal housing; adequate remedies for noncompliance; Limited liability company (LLC) disclosure and accountability; strengthening minimum standards of code enforcement personnel; rental property registries; vacant and abandoned building reforms and County government intervention.

Rockland County officials responded to the report’s release by noting that they welcomed the in-depth evaluation of the code enforcement process in the Town of Ramapo and the three other municipalities focused on in the report.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day and the Deputy Commissioner of Health Catherine Johnson Southren, who oversees the Center for Rockland Codes Initiative within the Rockland County Department of Health, released statistics on the county’s code enforcement initiatives.

Since May 2015 the Rockland Codes Initiative has logged 5,305 complaints, 22,225 inspections performed, 28,279 violations issued and $1,701,033 worth of fines issued.

“Rockland County has been pushing back against lackadaisical or outright corrupt code enforcement for years; launching the Rockland Codes Initiative (RCI) in 2015 to correct dangerous and disgusting conditions that were often found all across our county,” said Day. “The program itself is simple. Residents can make complaints through our confidential website or call them in. Once a complaint is made, inspectors from the Department of Health visit the location. They look for conditions that violate the Sanitary Code; conditions like unsafe and overcrowded housing.”

The Code Enforcement Report urged other New York counties to use Rockland as a model, stating, “Those counties who wish to become more involved in the protection of their residents and first responders [should] follow the lead of Rockland County, which established the Rockland Codes Initiative (RCI) to protect the health, property, and quality of life for all county residents through the enforcement of health and sanitary codes.”

“We are sending a message. We are getting compliance and we are seeing success. And while the fight is not over, we will not stop,” Day said.

Other recommendations in the report focused solely on the Town of Ramapo, “over the course of the investigation, the Town of Ramapo’s failure to properly administer and enforce the Uniform Code was evident. Despite the placement of a state oversight official to monitor the town’s code related activities, the committees believe Ramapo is not meeting its responsibility of protecting residents and first responders from the dangers imposed by improper construction and open violations. Thus, given the history of corruption and the culture of noncompliance that plagues the Town of Ramapo, the committees recommend that the Rockland County District Attorney retain the authority to prosecute code violations. The committees further encourage the Department of State and the Town of Ramapo to enter into another agreement enabling an oversight officer to assist the Town with its code enforcement activities,” the report stated.

The Senate report also encouraged Ramapo to follow the lead of Rockland’s four other towns and embrace a partnership with the Rockland Codes Initiative writing, “the Town of Ramapo has been disinclined to collaborate with the Rockland Codes Initiative on open violations. The committees strongly encourage the Town of Ramapo to fully cooperate and embrace the successful efforts of the Rockland Codes Initiative.”