Testimony of the Real Estate Board of New York before the NYC Council Committee on Housing and Buildings in Relation to Improving Elevator Safety in all Existing Buildings

INTRODUCTION

As the City’s leading real estate trade association representing residential and institutional property owners, builders, managers, investors, brokers, salespeople, and other organizations and individuals active in New York City real estate, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) appreciates the opportunity to provide comments in response to these bills.

REBNY agrees with the City Council that there is a continued need to assess elevator regulations to ensure the safety of residents and increase preparedness during emergency situations. Many of the bills being heard today work toward that shared goal. However, REBNY is also concerned that certain proposals under consideration could not be implemented without significant detrimental consequences to building owners and residents.

In addition to the legislation being considered today, REBNY also encourages the Council to act on a separate elevator-related issue. Specifically, the City’s building code requires all automatic passenger and freight elevators to be equipped with a system to monitor and prevent movement of elevators with open doors by January 1, 2020. However, reaching full compliance with this deadline is not practical.

This is primarily demonstrated by the existing workforce’s inability to perform all the work required to bring the city’s elevator stock into full compliance over the next eight months. According to industry participants, as of January 2019 as many as 40,000 elevators in New York City needed to be brought into compliance with the door lock requirement. Given that the work requires specially trained elevator mechanics, and combined with the fact that the elevator industry is currently experiencing the busiest period of work in recent memory, bringing all the elevators in the city up to this standard would require far more hours of labor than the workforce can complete by the 2020 deadline. That is why the firms who install these systems are telling customers seeking to meet the year-end deadline that they will not be able to complete those jobs on time.

Notwithstanding the six year compliance timeframe established by the inclusion of this requirement in the 2014 building code, we find ourselves in this situation because some manufacturers (including large supplies like Motion Control Engineering and Schindler) did not have an effective solution available to the market for a few years. As a result, the lack of readily available product shrunk the 6-year compliance period almost by half and many building owners were unable to install these systems as quickly as they would otherwise have wanted to.

In addition, we understand from the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) that an owner’s ongoing work to modernize an elevator or elevator fleet will not be considered proof of compliance with the door lock requirement unless the work is completed by the 2020 deadline. Elevator modernizations can be lengthy projects, lasting three to four months per elevator, with typically one elevator per bank being placed out of service at a time. Consequently, buildings that are in the process of modernizing their elevator fleet may have some individual elevators that are not in compliance with the door lock monitoring deadline by the end of the year. We believe that the City’s interests are not served by penalizing owners who are taking affirmative steps to improve their elevator’s safety and reliability through complete modernizations begun in advance of the 2020 deadline, as such action would both disincentive full modernizations and encourage owners to face sizeable, duplicative costs rather than undertake more comprehensive elevator upgrades.

Therefore, rather than place tens of thousands of elevators out of compliance with City policy, we believe that extending the compliance deadline to January 1, 2022 is warranted. In addition, in the case of elevator fleets undergoing modernizations, we believe it would be appropriate for DOB to allow permit applications of elevator modernizations filed before the compliance deadline to be sufficient proof of compliance so long as the owner submits regular compliance reports to the City until the elevator is in full compliance with the door lock monitoring requirement once the modernization is complete.

Our specific comments are provided below in greater detail.

 

INTRO NO: 341

SUBJECT: A local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to retroactively requiring secondary power for lighting for egress paths and elevators.

SPONSORS: Rose, King

Intro No. 341 would require owners of existing buildings to install a secondary power source to power certain elevators and egress paths during emergency situations. REBNY’s membership certainly understands the desire for all buildings to have a back-up power source in cases of emergency. During Hurricane Sandy, many New Yorkers—including our members—experienced power outages that made owners and residents recognize the utility of a secondary power source. Unfortunately, many of our members who have considered the option of installing a secondary power source with the ability to power an elevator have found that doing so in existing structures is incredibly challenging due to significant structural, regulatory, and cost barriers.

On the structural side, the weight and space required to install a generator is significant. Many older buildings do not currently have the space available and would need to construct and enclose a new structure to house these devices—an extraordinarily high expense for most owners. Furthermore, determining the best place for a generator or other device would require the expertise of an engineer to assess whether the building can handle the additional load, which could be well over 40-50,000 pounds in some instances. In buildings that are vertically constrained, these devices could require more than 2,000 aggregate square feet, which may not be available to a building owner and may only be achieved by taking over rental space, resulting in the loss of housing and revenue to the building.

Regulatory issues also complicate the ability for existing buildings to install these devices. In an older, landmarked building, for example, the device would have to clear many regulatory layers to ensure compliance with zoning, landmark, and safety regulations. Our members have found that the approval process to install a back-up power source to be so extensive that it can take as much as three years to complete.

Additionally, the cost of installing these devices will be extraordinarily high for most owners. Costs for these systems can easily reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. Given that this legislation applies the requirement to install these devices widely across all existing buildings, this kind of cost increase could potentially cripple the ability of owners to maintain safe and quality housing for tenants, particularly for affordable housing.

Further, many generators capable of providing power to elevators are fuel-sourced. Considering the sustainability initiatives being pursued by the City, we urge the Council to reconsider this mandate as it would indubitably impact a building’s ability to comply with the carbon caps and the City’s broader sustainability goals.

Placing a blanket mandate to install these devices, as this bill does, ignores many of the practical constraints of existing buildings. While we want to emphasize that we share the goal of ensuring residents are safe when emergencies happen, we do not believe this legislation can practically be accomplished.

We urge the Council to allow DOB the opportunity to engage technical experts to determine a more practical course of action as part of its revision of the existing building and construction codes. Considering the extraordinary limitations of existing buildings, the Council should limit the application of this policy to new construction only or at least narrowing the focus to certain properties in areas most at risk of experiencing power outages due to natural disasters.

 

INTRO NO: 414

SUBJECT:  A local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to safety signs in elevators

SPONSORS:  Chin, Rosenthal

Intro No. 414 would amend the building code to require signs be posted inside all new and existing elevators instructing passengers on what to do in the event of an elevator malfunction. REBNY is generally supportive of greater transparency. To make compliance as easy as possible, we believe the Council should allow the option for information to be digitally displayed in elevators with screens. Additionally, the compliance deadline in the legislation should be amended to provide owners with sufficient time to comply following the promulgation of rules.

 

INTRO NO: 565

SUBJECT: A local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to elevator service outage accommodations

SPONSORS: Treyger, Rosenthal

Intro No. 565 would require owners of R-1 and R-2 buildings to provide reasonable accommodations to residents with disabilities where an elevator will be out of service for more than 24 hours. The legislation would also require the creation of a written accommodation plan.

Ensuring that all building residents have equal ability to enjoy housing without regard to ability is an important principle enshrined in federal, state, and local housing and human rights law. Consequently, under current law, owners are required to make reasonable accommodations for residents with disabilities that uphold this principle. This is one of the reasons why building owners generally do not take more than one elevator out of service at a time for repairs and strive to make repairs during hours when residents are most likely to be at work and out of their homes.

Given that current law already provides a high level of protection for people with disabilities, we have several concerns about how this proposal would impact current law. For instance, Intro No. 565. introduces the concept of time, in this case 24 hours, into whether an owner is required to make reasonable accommodations. This concept does not exist in current law, and therefore may add uncertainty for owners about when reasonable accommodations are required. In addition, while courts have recognized that requiring building service staff to physically carry people down flights of stairs is a significant health, safety, and liability risk and is therefore not a reasonable accommodation, it appears to be contemplated by this proposal.

Furthermore, current laws require that resident’s request that owners make reasonable accommodations since owners may not know whether a given resident has a disability. However, this legislation would require owners to create an accommodation plan without knowing the particular circumstances of a given resident and prior to that resident’s request. Doing so forces owners to speculate about unforeseen circumstances and significantly limits the value of the accommodation plan contemplated by the bill.

Given these questions, we encourage the Council to consult closely with the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and the Human Rights Commission to more carefully consider how this proposal interacts with current law. REBNY would welcome the chance to be part of that dialogue.

 

INTRO NO:  786

SUBJECT:  A local Law in relation to requiring the department of buildings to report on the efficacy of elevator brake monitors and remote elevator monitoring systems

SPONSORS: Torres, Rosenthal

Intro No. 786 would require DOB to write a report on whether brake monitors and remote electronic monitoring systems should be installed on all elevators in residential buildings. We fully support efforts to ensure the safety of elevators and believe a study of these issues is an appropriate first step.

 

INTRO NO: 787

SUBJECT:  A local Law to amend the New York City building code, in relation to maintaining brake monitors and elevator monitoring systems.

SPONSORS: Torres, Cornegy Jr, Ampry-Samuel, Yeger, Rosenthal, Richards, Williams, Gjonaj

Intro No. 787 bill amends the Building Code to require brake monitors and elevator monitoring systems to the list of items that need to be maintained annually. REBNY is fully in support of improving the safety of elevators to the highest level technology will allow. However, we believe this legislation should not be adopted prior the completion of the report required by Intro No. 786 to more fully consider this issue.  

 

INTRO NO: 788-a

SUBJECT: A local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to elevator maintenance company licenses and elevator maintenance company director licenses.

SPONSORS: Torres, Cornegy, Ampry-Samuel

Intro No. 788-A would require persons and/or companies performing elevator maintenance, repair, and replacement work to be licensed by DOB. The bill would also require DOB to develop a licensing and training program be developed in tandem with the rollout of the training.

The elevator industry is currently in one of its busiest periods in recent memory. REBNY supports the adoption of a reasonable licensing program that ensures workers are well-trained and operate safely and with appropriate supervision. However, any legislation that implements a new licensing system must be implemented in such a way that it does not stop the ability of the workforce to complete projects in a timely manner. As we have seen with the Construction Safety Act, adopting requirements that cannot reasonably be met in the timeframe set forth in local law will force the Council to reconsider its initial actions. For that reason, we urge the Council to work with DOB and the industry to ensure a realistic timeframe is pursued that will not prevent owners from meeting City imposed compliance-related deadlines due to a further reduced workforce.

 

INTRO NO: 1508

SUBJECT: A local Law to amend the New York City building code, in relation to requiring that vents in elevator hoistway enclosures be closed to prevent air leakage.

SPONSORS: Levine

Intro No. 1508 would require vents in elevator hoistway enclosures to be sealed to prevent air leaks in existing buildings. REBNY acknowledges the substantial energy savings that can be achieved through this requirement and is supportive of the City’s efforts to maximize energy efficiency during this crucial time in history. However, as written, this proposal would present a significant burden to the existing building stock. Depending on what has already been done to each elevator, bringing each elevator into compliance with this new requirement could require extensive retrofitting that may include the installation of smoke detectors, dampers and controls. This would require elevator shutdowns and possibly a reinspection of the system by DOB’s elevator division.

The NYC Fire Department, in conjunction with DOB, is currently reviewing a proposal to eliminate hoistways for new construction in accordance with the latest IBC requirements. We strongly urge the Council to await the results of this effort and to work with both groups to come up with a proposal that could be applied to existing buildings during the revision of the existing building code, which is set to begin in a year or so.

 

INTRO NO: 4176

SUBJECT: A local Law to amend the New York City building code, in relation to the definition of site safety training full compliance date and site safety training second compliance date.

SUBJECT: The Public Advocate (Williams)

REBNY would like to echo earlier sentiments submitted from our comments on the Construction Safety Act. We are fully supportive of regulations that improve construction safety. The recent tragic death of yet another construction laborer demonstrates the need to address continued lapses in safety training.[1] But we have consistently raised the concern of training capacity challenges especially for day laborers, MWBEs and other workers without immediate access to training.

We support the Council’s recognition of the training capacity challenges by proposing to extend the compliance dates for safety training until Dec 1, 2019. However, this date should be only adopted if the Department is confident that all of the estimated 180,000 construction workers can meet LL196’s training requirements. This will mean significant expansion of the City’s efforts to offer free construction safety training through its Workforce1 Centers. Otherwise, we will be faced with yet another request for an extension.  

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments. REBNY looks forward to continuing its work with the Council to further explore the alternatives outlined in this document.

 

[1] “7 Stories Up, a ‘Coping Stone’ Strikes Construction Worker, Killing Him.” The New York Times. April 8, 2019. Accessed April 9, 2019. <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/08/nyregion/construction-worker-death-nyc-midtown-east.html>