Wednesday, May 30th 2007
New York has enjoyed a historic building boom as a rising economy has sparked housing construction and renovations across the boroughs. Hammers and saws are at work even in neighborhoods that were once down at the heel.
City Hall has done an excellent job encouraging production of new housing and has committed to financing a record-breaking number of affordable units. But the Department of Buildings, it turns out, has done too little to discourage ripoffs, slipshod work and safety violations.
Construction workers have suffered fatalities and thousands have been paid substandard wages - while numerous New Yorkers have seen their homes damaged by contractors working on adjoining properties. Mayor Bloomberg is now promising big fixes - and well he should.
The parlous state to which building enforcement fell as construction rose has been made dramatically clear by Daily News reporter Brian Kates, whose four-part investigative series, "Building Boom-Doggle," concludes in today's paper. What he discovered in building records and by visiting the nabes should have been front and center on the desk of Commissioner Patricia Lancaster, and from there it should have been passed up the chain of command to Hizzoner. Plainly, too little of that happened, leaving the mayor in the uncharacteristic position of having to scramble for a remedial plan.
Most tragically, 31 construction workers were killed on the job in the city last year, and so far this year five have died. "Virtually all the deaths occurred in buildings where city building codes were violated or federal safety regulations ignored," Kates reported.
Bloomberg and Lancaster did mount an effort this year to reduce fatalities by cracking down on the lack of scaffold safety, scaffold accidents being a leading cause of construction deaths. But far more remains to be done - in particular to address the bureaucratic black hole created by the overlapping jurisdictions of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Buildings Department.
Neither agency has the proper staffing to apply real legal muscle, so hustling contractors often ignore fines and other penalties, or just treat them as business expenses. And they fatten their wallets even further by hiring off-the-books workers - nonunion immigrants preferred - who won't complain about lousy, unsafe working conditions and even lousier pay. The city says construction workers must be paid $30 an hour plus benefits. Laborers interviewed by The News reported getting about $8.50 an hour. They put in long, tough, backbreaking hours with no oversight, no protection, maybe not even adequate equipment, and the only time the city - and that includes the public - takes notice is when another one dies under a falling wall or a collapsing staircase.
Now, though, the Daily News series has gotten Bloomberg's attention. That's good. We expect action.