In 2016, Queens homeowner Joe Corsini came home to find a piece of paper on his door. It was a notice from the city. He was being fined $3,000 because he moved his pigeon coop from his backyard to his roof and didn’t realize he needed a building permit. Joe was frustrated, but not deterred. He hired an architect—and a lawyer—and started to work with the city to bring the coop into compliance. The city set out a series of unreasonable requirements and after months of going back and forth, Joe finally gave up. Despite working with the city, however, it continued to fine him. When he finally gave up, the city had imposed $11,000 in fines—all for a pigeon coop. To make matters worse, to appeal the fines, he had to first pay them in full. Understandably, Joe tore down the coop and paid the fines.
Joe is not alone in being targeted by the city’s abusive building inspectors. This year, the city brought in nearly $1 billion in fines and forfeitures, much of it raised by the Department of Buildings. Next year, the city projects it will increase that amount by another $150 million. It can only do that by increasing inspections and fines.
Although Joe may have torn down the coop, he is not done fighting the city. Today, he partnered with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, to sue the city and put an end to its unconstitutional program of trapping property owners in a byzantine system of permits and fines that few can escape.
“New York City’s building code treats ordinary homeowners like a revenue source, regularly imposing huge fines for minor violations,” said Bill Maurer, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “An innocent mistake shouldn’t cost a homeowner tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. The city’s system is so rigged against small property owners that few can escape unscathed.”
Every year, New York City’s Department of Buildings (DOB) issues thousands of tickets and fines for violations of the city’s codes and regulations, which are long, complex, and contained in three different sources. Some of these violations are issued to large developers for serious problems. No one denies that the city should protect public safety by enforcing its building code against skyscrapers and other major developments, but a growing number of tickets target ordinary homeowners who made inconsequential changes to their own property. For many of these tickets, the property owners cannot mount a defense and there is no appeals process. They have one option: pay. For other tickets, like Joe’s, the property owner can defend themselves, but they cannot appeal a decision to the city’s administrative appeals process and then to a court without first paying all fines the city has levied. This system is not only abusive and unfair; it is also unconstitutional.
The fines and fees collected through this process benefit the city’s General Fund, creating an incentive to impose maximum penalties without regard to whether a violation poses a threat to safety or whether the property owner can afford to pay.
“I cannot believe the Department of Buildings can just issue fines without any oversight,” said Joe. “And for the fines I could appeal, I could not even do that without paying thousands of dollars. This system is set up to punish homeowners and is designed to wring every dollar it can for harmless things.”
The Department of Buildings is not above the Constitution. When it imposes fines and fees on property owners, the owners must have a meaningful opportunity to be heard by an impartial adjudicator without the burdensome condition of paying everything upfront. This protection is the bedrock of due process and is especially crucial when the fines provide a financial incentive for the Department of Buildings to stack up penalties, as it did to Joe.
“The constitutional guarantee of due process for deprivation of property guards against precisely what the DOB is doing to unsuspecting homeowners across New York City,” said IJ Attorney Diana Simpson. “Joe’s lawsuit seeks to put an end to the DOB’s role as cop, judge, and jury for the city’s building code. It will ensure that the city focuses on actual threats to public safety, instead of targeting small homeowners without the know-how or the resources to fight back against the city’s draconian system that lines its own coffers.”
The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty and the nation’s premier defender of private property rights, including lawsuits against New York City’s unconstitutional “no-fault” evictions, unconstitutional code enforcement practices in Pagedale, Missouri, and eminent domain abuses in National City, California.