Testimony of The Real Estate Board of New York to the Committee on Housing and Buildings of the New York City Council Concerning Façade Inspections and Intro 1853

Zachary Steinberg

Vice President Policy & Planning

January 26, 2020

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The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) is the City’s leading real estate trade association representing commercial, residential, and institutional property owners, builders, managers, investors, brokers, salespeople, and other organizations and individuals active in New York City real estate. REBNY thanks the Council for the opportunity to testify on façade inspections and Intro 1853. Considering the tragic events that have occurred over the past few months, REBNY appreciates the invitation to join the discussion on a stronger path forward on greater oversight and timeliness to façade inspection procedures.

REBNY commends this committee and the Council in taking the initiative to better understand what can be done to ensure public safety. While the Department of Buildings (DOB) has recently taken steps to strengthen the rules associated with exterior wall and façade inspections, it is appropriate for this committee to evaluate additional ways of improving public safety. For that reason, we appreciate that among the topics being discussed in this hearing include how best to improve inspection processes to take advantage of advances in technology, such as electronic filing, including dimensional plans and heat imaging, that could expedite processes and enhance accountability.

With over one million built structures in New York, the scope of work in inspecting and maintaining its building stock every five years can be staggering. Although the city continues to grow, New York is an old city structurally. The average building is over 78 years in age, and more than 134,000 buildings were built over a century ago.[1]

The scale of the task of inspecting the city’s buildings raises the question of capacity and resources for the Department of Buildings (DOB). We are concerned that existing financial plans would result in a nearly 10% budget cut for DOB over the next four fiscal years.[2] If implemented, this would pose a large obstacle to inspecting the city’s facades given that a common reason for delays in remediation of violations is the time it takes for processing permits, which are needed to begin work as well as to erect scaffolding to protect pedestrians from potential hazards. Shrinking DOB’s budget will have an impact on the size of staff, the time it takes to inspect and repair facades, and by extension public safety.

Capacity challenges extend beyond DOB’s financial resources. The agency recently amended the inspection requirements for exterior walls and facades, which includes increasing the years of experience needed by a qualified inspector from 1 to 7. This change will dramatically shrink the pool of qualified inspectors, potentially making it difficult for building owners to comply with their inspection cycles in a timely manner.

Additionally, building owners can experience delays in remediating hazards even after the inspection and permitting occurs. It is common for building owners to need to put up scaffolding on an adjoining building to protect the public and the adjoining property during work. Unfortunately, in New York City today, the regulatory regime that governs the terms under which neighbors grant a property owner with temporary access to their land is cumbersome and insensitive to the urgency repairs may require. While in some cases owners and their neighbors quickly and amicably work out a solution, in many instances’ property owners are required to go to court in order to resolve the questions of whether and under what terms adjoining property owners can temporarily access their property. Getting permission and contract of work takes time, if permission is granted at all. 

The principle law that establishes the terms under which adjoining property owners may be required to grant access to their property is Section 881 of the State’s Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law. Under this provision of law, the Supreme Court is authorized to grant a license to an owner (or lessee) that allows the licensee to have temporary access to adjoining property, in aid of “improvement or repairs” to the licensee’s property. We believe that changes to this legislation can be made that will help prevent adjoining owners from delaying the installation of public protections without undercutting private property rights.

In addition, REBNY supports efforts to bring new technology into the façade inspection and maintenance process, specifically drones. Drone technology has propelled quickly and advanced to the point where it can offer numerous benefits to exterior wall and façade inspections. The current inspections require qualified engineers and architects examine the building walls up close and through binoculars. It is easy to miss small issues and those that lay immediately below the surface. Drones, however, can more comprehensively diagnose issues in a wall through scanning and 3D imaging. Heat sensor imaging can uncover below surface conditions in a non-invasive manner, critical for historic properties, such as deteriorating metal anchors that affix terra cotta panels.

Moreover, the drone data can integrate with existing systems like DOB, making oversight easier. Should drone use be included in the DOB façade inspection process, it would allow building owners to use the technology to review the state of their buildings on their own initiative. This would allow owners to identify issues faster in façade maintenance, which would be a great benefit for public safety.  

Drones also can dramatically decrease the time it takes to inspect a wall. Today’s process can take days for permitting, erecting scaffolding and analog inspections. Instead, with less encroachment to the public domain and ground floor businesses, the initial inspection performed by drones can be accomplished in a matter of minutes by flying around the building, generating high-resolution images and models. Drone use would certainly not eliminate the need to have up-close inspections and could not at present replace probes for cavity walls, but it would be an incredible complement to the current inspection process that would make it more robust and expedient. Fewer public safety hazards would go undetected and they would be found more quickly.

Though drone use offers many benefits, it is recognized that the use of drones is complicated with a myriad of concerns to consider – security, safety, labor, and oversight. Each of the issues is expansive and requires thoughtful and deep investigation and should be weighed against the public utility of the technology.

REBNY encourages the Council to move forward expeditiously to authorize the use of drones to enhance the ability of owners to improve their buildings and protect the public. While drones are not a replacement for human inspection of exterior walls, we should not prevent such beneficial technology from being used in New York City.

BILL: Int. 1853-2020

SUBJECT: A Local Law in relation to requiring the department of buildings to report on the safety and feasibility of permitting building exterior wall examinations by unmanned aircraft systems

SPONSORS: Cornegy and Kallos

Intro 1853 would require the City to conduct a safety and feasibility study of the use of drones to inspect exterior walls and facades by June 30, 2020. The studies would seek to understand 1) whether the use of drones is incongruent with current laws and regulations, 2) if drone use in the inspection process would provide better public safety than the existing process, and 3) if drone use could reduce the pervasiveness of sidewalk sheds.

A study of the use of drones is an important element to assuaging any of the previously mentioned concerns. The Council should provide more clarity on the nature of the study and propose it include a working group of relevant stakeholders, such as drone manufacturers, NYPD, DOB, building owners, qualified inspectors, etc., to fully understand what a productive regulatory environment could look like for drones use in façade inspection. The technology has the potential to benefit the public, and a balanced working group would help deliver those benefits while balancing private property and privacy rights and public safety.  

BILL: Int.1816-2019  

SUBJECT: A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to conforming the New York City energy conservation code to the New York state energy code with amendments unique to construction in the city and incorporate therein provisions of the NYStretch energy code-2020, and to repeal section 28-1001.2 of such administrative code relating to such conforming amendments.

SPONSOR: Cornegy

Int. 1816-2019 would update the New York City Energy Conservation Code to align with the NY Stretch Energy Code and conform with federal and state requirements. REBNY has appreciated the opportunity to be involved in the Department of Building’s Energy Code revision process. Promoting energy efficiency is an essential strategy that is needed to address our climate and sustainability challenges and an improved energy code will help accomplish that goal. For these reasons we support Int 1816.

Thank you for the consideration of these points.      

[1] New York City Department of City Planning (2020). PLUTO. Available from: https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/data-maps/open-data/dwn-pluto-mappluto.page

[2] New York City Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget (2020)