Mayor Bloomberg Orders Stricter Law Enforcement After Two Fatal Fires

NY Daily News - November 06, 2011

by Benjamin Lesser

The Bloomberg administration has had some success cracking down on illegal firetrap apartments after two fatal fires generated a wave of criticism about lax enforcement.

When five people died in two deadly blazes early this year, the Daily News revealed a deadly pattern: city building inspectors investigating complaints of illegal units routinely closed cases after two unsuccessful door knocks.

Mayor Bloomberg ordered an overhaul of the way the city enforces the law, including having uniformed firefighters accompany inspectors when they door-knock suspected firetraps.

In the years leading up to the change, Department of Building inspectors had increasing difficulty gaining access to suspect buildings. Last year the rate reached an all time low of 45%.

Since firefighter started acting as escorts, the rate of success has turned around, with inspectors getting inside 54% of the time - a nine point jump.

That represented a reversal of years of declining rates even as thousands of complaints about illegal apartments continued to roll in every month.

Inspectors also issued violations more often when they got inside - 37 % of the time compared to 32 % the previous year.

And the city went to court far more often to force landlords to let them in, obtaining special warrants 115 times fiscal 2011. That compares to 67 times the prior year.

The turnaround began after the Daily News exposed a host of problems in the way the city was dealing with the long-standing problem.

Another key issue wsa a lack of coordination between agencies such as the buildings, fire the housing preservation departments.

A buildings department official attributed the improved success rate, at least in part, to an increased effort to conduct inspections on nights and weekends when residents are more likely to be home.

That's another reversal of a prior mayoral management report that blamed the increasing difficulty in gaining access to apartments to a "decrease in the number of evening and weekend inspections."

In May - after acknowledging the city had not done enough - Bloomberg created a task force that would target buildings identified as high risk and then send out uniformed FNDY firefighters along with Department of Building's personnel to attempt the inspections.

Since its creation the task force has attempted to inspect a total of 133 properties.

While their success rate, both in terms of gaining access and finding illegal conversions, was substantially higher than the standard inspection procedure the small number of inspections has limited the program's impact and has some members of the city council asking for a more vigorious effort.

"That number amounts to less than two per day," Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr. (D-Queens), said. "This potentially deadly situation requires much quicker action and I intend to seek a detailed explanation as to why they are moving so slowly."

Vallone had previously sponsored legislation that would would allow inspectors to issue violations even if they couldn't get inside a suspected illegal apartment if there was enough circumstantial evidence.

An official in the Mayor's office defended the task force's level of activity.

"We are finding the most dangerous conditions by doing it this way," the official said.

The official added the the city would always be willing to look at other potential solutions but that the legislative proposals previously put forward, including Vallone's, were not workable.