Neighbor Rights During Construction in New York City

What to know and do if your use of property is interfered with

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“It’s as busy as it was in 2007,” says Ray Mellon, a construction litigator at Zetlin & De Chiara, about real estate development in New York City.

But as projects magnify, so do problems. Demand for construction workers may be skyrocketing, but the pool of experienced laborers stays more or less the same.

“It dilutes the labor force,” explains Mellon. “You have workers ignorant of building practices and people cutting corners.”

Safety, soundness, quiet

It’s the responsibility of the Department of Buildings to ensure that projects adhere to building codes for safety and soundness, but, according to Mellon, the DOB is understaffed and underfunded, while several DOB employees were recently arrested for taking bribes.

“The DOB is full of competent, hard-working people,” he says, “but developers can’t get approvals quickly.”

Safety and soundness—not to mention quietness—are also the concerns of those who live in the neighborhood.

“The adjoining neighbor’s rights include the ability to use its property without interference ... and also free from damage caused by others,” writes Schiff Hardin partner Brian Lustbader, co-chair of the real estate construction committee of the New York State Bar’s real property law section, in a recent Real Property Law Journal article.

“If you are losing reasonable enjoyment of your property, or prevented from using your space, you are entitled to compensation,” says Mellon. “Case law recognizes this.”

All the things that can go wrong

The list of what can go wrong during construction is longer than Long Island, and some of the items on it are very bad indeed.

Reading Chapter 33 of the New York City Construction Code, “Safeguards during Construction or Demolition,” is like Googling skin diseases: One encounters nasty possibilities that, in one’s blissful ignorance, one had never worried about.

At the minor end: The sewer drain may get clogged with concrete washings. Going up the impact scale: one’s share of air, sunlight and privacy may shrink; the number of rats on the block may grow exponentially; and pile-driving and other noises may make it impossible to concentrate or sleep. At the top of the scale, inconvenience gives way to danger and death.

So how can citizens stand up for their rights?

When in doubt, dial 311

“City residents do not have tons of rights regarding construction,” says Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss, who focuses on real estate finance and community development. But, he adds, “They do have some. Technically, many of them are not rights. Rather, citizens have a right to complain.”

According to Reiss, the Department of Buildings is the agency to call about:

  • excessive debris
  • problems with fences, safety netting, scaffolding or cranes
  • work being done without a permit

The DOB’s phone number is New York’s general information and non-emergency kvetching number: 311.

To complain about after-hours construction—before 7 a.m. or after 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, or anytime on Saturday or Sunday, unless the contractor has a permit stating otherwise—Reiss recommends contacting the DOB or the Department of Environmental Protection. The latter’s number is also 311.

Strength in numbers

“It never hurts to start by talking with the contractor and/or owner directly,” says Reiss, who also recommends talking to your community board and city councilmember. As with most things, there’s strength in numbers.

“The more people that complain, the more likely it is to get on the radar of officials,” he says.

He also recommends collecting all the evidence you can, whether to show officials or, if worse comes to worst, to use in court. “Create a paper trail. Pictures, of course, are worth a thousand words, particularly if they are time- and date-stamped and you annotate them as appropriate.”

New York

It’s the responsibility of the Department of Buildings to ensure that projects adhere to building codes for safety and soundness, but, according to Mellon, the DOB is understaffed and underfunded, while several DOB employees were recently arrested for taking bribes.

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