Construction boom and noise in New York City go hand-in-hand, but residential areas within the city are starting to notice more noise after hours than ever before. When a construction company applies for a building permit, it is standard that work hours fall between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Most city residents expect construction noise problems during those hours, but noise variances can allow work to go on until midnight or later. If it seems like more noise variances have been approved in New York City over the past few years, that is because that’s exactly what is happening. Residents are not happy, and the city appears to not be doing much about the complaints.
311 Complaint Numbers Increasing As Construction Booms
When New York City residents want to complain about construction noise, they pick up their phones and dial 311. In 2010, about one or two years before the construction boom started in New York City, 14,259 complaints were logged with 311 for construction noise. Approximately three out of every four of those calls were for loud work performed outside of the normal 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. window. When the construction boom was in full swing in 2015, the number of 311 calls jumped to 37,806.
While the number of complaints could be written off as a result of the tremendous increase in the volume of work, there was also the fact that the number of noise variances granted between 2012 and 2015 rose by 89 percent. Not only was there more construction going on in the city, but more companies were being allowed to work outside of the normal work hours near residential properties. While the 311 number is not just used for construction noise complaints, it is no shock to find out that construction noise complaints are the top type of call 311 operators get.
What Kind Of Noise Variances Are There?
Residents throughout the city complain of drilling, pounding, jackhammers, large materials being moved, and trucks rumbling day and night. Residents complain that the noise is so bad they cannot sleep during the week, and they are even finding it difficult to get sleep on the weekends. The noise is so bad that it even affects pets that are sensitive to loud noises. Residents are complaining, and they are paying extra to get out of the leases that put them in homes and apartments close to the noise.
When the residents call on the city for help, they get little to no relief. There were thousands of cases of excessive construction noise investigated in 2016, but investigators claimed the noise was not excessive 84.4 percent of the time. While the number of complaints about noise went up, the number of noise variances being awarded also went up. In 2015, the city approved 59,895 out of 60,326 noise variance requests. Whenever residents throughout the city heard of a noise variance approval, protests would immediately erupt. The situation became a public relations disaster for the city and the construction industry.
Construction Workers Are Also In Danger
Noise does not seem to be an issue that the construction industry or the city of New York are too concerned about. In 2002, it was estimated that at least 500,000 construction workers around the country were constantly exposed to loud construction noises. As the number of construction workers continues to increase, the number of workers unnecessarily exposed to loud noises also increases.
Since 2002, OSHA has been developing and working on guidelines for construction noise that are designed to benefit the workers and people in the immediate area of the construction site. However, the number of OSHA inspectors in New York City is well below the level needed to monitor the basic safety violations committed on the thousands of job sites throughout the city. OSHA would like to enforce its own noise regulations, but it does not have enough inspectors to get the job done.
One of the issues OSHA is raising awareness for is the idea that any construction noise above 5dB is dangerous for workers. It used to be that only jackhammer operators and others who operated loud machinery were given hearing protection by their companies. But in recent years, OSHA has recommended distributing hearing protection to all workers in a work area that registers louder than 5dB and many companies have complied with the recommendation. While this is a great start, there is still much work to do in protecting the hearing of construction workers in New York City.
The DOB Takes A Step Back
In 2016, the New York City Department of Buildings said it issued only 18,164 approved noise variances. While that is a drastic improvement over 2015, it does not take into account any variances that have been “grandfathered in” from 2015. Noise variances have expiration dates, but they are very easy to renew. The 18,164 number represents new noise variances approved by the DOB, but it does not take into account the variances from 2015 that continue to get renewed.
One of the problems for residents is that OSHA barely talks about noise levels that are acceptable for residential areas, and OSHA regulations offer no guidelines on providing variances for loud construction work outside of the normal hours. When OSHA inspectors do respond to a noise complaint, there isn’t much they can do because the company usually has a valid variance in effect. While it looks like the city is listening to the citizens, it could be just more loud noise being put out by the city to keep residents at bay.
Construction Momentum Is Increasing The Problem
When the special tax abatement known as 421a expired in early 2016 (we wrote about it here), many construction industry observers thought that the New York City construction momentum would slow down. While there was an initial lull in the action, it did not take long for developers to start applying for more building permits than ever. It looks like 2017 will be another successful year for New York City construction, and some experts are expecting construction revenue in New York City to break records in 2018.
The problem is that much of this construction is for high-priced residential properties that are being put right next to existing high-priced residential properties. The gentrification of boroughs continues with a sharp increase in luxury residential construction. Developers want to build and sell their new units as fast as possible while the New York City real estate market still has momentum, and that will mean more loud early mornings and late nights for New York City residents.
What Can Residents Do To Protect Themselves?
Aside from complaining to the DOB, there is not much residents can really do. Construction noise is extremely loud, and when it happens at night it seems even louder because of how quiet everything else is. One option neighborhoods have is to work together and protest approved noise variances, or sue over noise variances that allow excessive noise in residential neighborhoods. Litigation in this instance, as with many other aspects of the construction industry, can sometimes be very effective.
The residents of New York City need to band together and continue to put pressure on the DOB to not approve so many noise variances. Most developers are only applying for noise variances to appease their own personal need to finish projects ahead of schedule. When the public comes together to complain, it can force developers to ease up on their schedules and avoid running residents out of their homes.