Finally, Here Comes the DOB Overhaul We’ve Been Waiting For

New York City is creating a commission to define and implement desperately needed reforms for the construction industry watchdog.

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The mere 800 building inspectors, who watch more than 40,000 active projects, are not helped by a Department of Building that has been mired in red tape and, some say, stuck in the past. 

That watchdog is the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), responsible for enforcing the Big Apple’s building codes and zoning regulations; issuing building permits and licenses; registering and disciplining certain construction trades; responding to structural emergencies; and inspecting more than 1,000,000 new and existing buildings across the five boroughs.

 

The department currently employs just 800 inspectors to keep track of the staggering 40,000-plus active job sites across the city, according to DOB press secretary Andrew Rudansky. These inspectors face daunting workloads and are currently seeking a new contract, pushing for better working conditions. In an industry that has seen construction workers suffer on-site fatalities at an alarming rate over the years, operations are clearly not running as they should. So as of mid-September, the DOB is indeed beginning a major revamp.

A commission to analyze and propose changes that will hopefully unstick the DOB from it's current morass.

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In addition to the danger that some inspectors encounter in the fulfillment of their duties, some have also been threatened with violencxe by angered builders. They seek a new contract amid the commission's work.

“The Department of Buildings is tasked with keeping one million buildings safe in our city, while promoting safe conditions for workers on construction sites, yet its tools for interfacing with industry and members of the public are outdated and too often inaccessible,” said New York City Councilmember Pierina Sanchez, who also serves as chair for the Committee on Housing and Buildings, in a lengthy press release detailing the new mission of the DOB.

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Mayor Eric Adams, left, appointed Eric Ulrich, second from right, as commissioner of the DOB. Together they will lead the commission that will propose solutions.

A brand-new commission

On September 14, Mayor Eric Adams, along with DOB Commissioner Eric Ulrich, took to lower Manhattan to announce the city’s plan to reshape the ambitions of the DOB, which has long been plagued by tedious organizational procedures that often brings projects to a standstill.

The key takeaway from the announcement was the reveal of a new commission—dubbed “Adams Commission”—consisting of figures in the city’s construction and development industry who will, as deputy press secretary for the department Ryan Degan put it, “create a blueprint for reforms” at the agency. The stakeholders will work on recommending structural improvements for the department that has become notorious for the persistent red tape surrounding its operations.

 

“This commission will provide long overdue feedback to improve the structure and output of the agency,” said Councilmember Sanchez. And as Adams stated in the release, it is time for New York to “make this agency run more efficiently” because New Yorkers deserve a department that “prioritizes customer service and safety at the same time, all in service of moving our city forward.”

 

The change agents: unions and trade groups

The 90-day commission consists of 64 industry groups, trade organizations, ownership associations, advocacy groups, and government agencies. Some of the local labor groups involved include the Local 14 Cranes Union, the Local 157 Carpenters Union, the Local 211 Building Inspectors Union, and the Local 375 Technical Guild. Those partaking in this rehaul will mark their efforts with a detailed report to be delivered to the mayor and City Council. And according to the DOB, the recommendations will be implemented in 2023.

 

Their main goal is cutting the department’s response times to incidents or other situations, as well as removing, as Deputy Mayor for Operations Meera Joshi said in the release, “unnecessarily complex regulatory hurdles to get shovels in the ground—and projects off the ground—efficiently and safely for all New Yorkers and visitors.”

 

Adams and Ulrich kicked off the initiative with the launch of two customer service units—the Small Business Support Team (SBST) and the Major Projects Development Unit (MPDU), both already staffed and operating. Both of these units will, according to the DOB, simplify project timelines by providing services to help applications avoid potentially costly delays.

 

The DOB overhaul will also focus on the customer perspective. Currently, the department is expanding the online transaction options available via DOB NOW, which is a platform for certain licensed workers—like special inspectors or registered architects—to submit jobs to the department. (Updates to the agency’s online services are long overdue.) Also, the DOB has notably launched a weekly after-hours customer service event to be held at each of the five borough offices.

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Commissioner Ulrich

All eyes on Ulrich

Overall, as Dan Garodnick, the director of the Department of City Planning, put it in the release: “This is yet another great step to remove administrative burdens and to make government work better for New Yorkers,” adding that he hopes to “better enforce our zoning rules and to create a more dynamic, efficient city.” And as the commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, Dawn M. Pinnock, stated: “…We look forward to helping the Department of Buildings reassess and reimagine what’s possible as they deliver critical services to New Yorkers.”

 

In the end, the highly anticipated revamp of the city’s DOB puts Ulrich, who was appointed commissioner this past May, in the limelight. Ulrich—who, upon being named commissioner, promised to remain “laser-focused” on improving safety and customer service within the city’s building world—stated that his team has been “hard at work implementing incremental repairs and tune-ups” over the past several months. “With this new commission and these new customer service units,” he added, “we are announcing the official start of a wholesale rebuild to the way we do business.”

 

And that rebuild is a long time coming. New York has been witness to the proliferation of non-union construction sites over the past several years, with developers relying upon non-union contractors to cut corners and costs. This has consequently led to a rise in violations, accidents, and deaths; as New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) stated in a 2022 report, the majority of logged construction worker fatalities (some go unreported) occur on non-union sites. As a licensed building inspector (who opted to remain anonymous for this article) recently told Union-Built Matters, change is critical; if the city’s tumultuous buildings scene remains as-is, he predicts the “continuing deterioration of wages and working conditions in the increasingly non-union construction industry.”

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Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at jessica.beebe.ny@gmail.com.

 
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