Gothamist: It's 'Groundhog Day' For NYCHA Residents Suffering Through Heat Outages During Arctic Blast

Mayor Bill de Blasio during a visit to NYCHA's Woodside Houses to check on a repaired boiler last year (   Mayor's Flickr   )

Mayor Bill de Blasio during a visit to NYCHA's Woodside Houses to check on a repaired boiler last year (Mayor's Flickr)

By Jake Offenhartz in News
Jan 30, 2019 2:39 PM

The bone-chilling polar vortex that has transformed much of the Midwest into a dangerous freeze box is now coming for New York City, with temperatures set to plummet tonight and remain in the single digits for much of the next two days. If you're an apartment-dwelling New Yorker whose home isn't sufficiently warm, the city's housing department has promised to hold your landlord accountable. But for the tens of thousands of NYCHA residents who've already gone without heat and hot water this winter, there's little option but to wait and see.

"The super called this morning and told me there's something wrong with the boiler," said Rosa Pinero, a tenant advocate at the Moore Houses in Mott Haven. "It happened when it was real cold the other day too. We get people on the upper floors complaining, and we hope they repair it as soon as possible."

More than 1,200 residents at the Moore Houses have been without heat since 7:30 a.m. this morning, according to NYCHA's database of service interruptions. Repairs are underway, with the intention of getting the heat back on by later this afternoon. As of 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, unplanned heat and hot water outages had hit at least five NYCHA buildings in the Bronx and three buildings in Manhattan, impacting over 2,000 residents.

"This is like living through Groundhog Day, except it's not funny," Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who grew up in the Moore Houses, told Gothamist. "We need them to start being proactive...this is something we'd never accept from private landlords."

On Wednesday, the Mayor's Office sent out a press release specifically touting the city's "proactive efforts" to minimize service interruptions. But that approach—activating a "situation room" in Long Island City, beefing up heating response teams, and establishing a warming center in each borough—seemed to take it as a given that some tenants would be left in the cold.

In a statement, NYCHA General Manager Vito Mustaciuolo said that staff were "fully prepared to respond to any emergencies that may arise while also working hard to anticipate problems this cold spell may bring—just like we have been throughout this heating season." He noted that the authority had managed to decrease response times during service interruptions to 10 hours on average, down from 36 hours at this time last year. But less than two weeks ago, thousands of NYCHA residents went without heat for a 24-hour period in which temperatures hovered around 10 degrees.

"To actually have a preemptive approach you need to do analysis of heating systems and boilers, instead of waiting for children and seniors to suffer every time it's cold," noted Diaz. The failure to do so, the borough president added, "epitomizes the ineptitude of the [de Blasio] administration." In the first three weeks of "heat season," more than 35,000 NYCHA residents went without heat and hot water—including at one of the developments that the mayor toured to promote a freshly installed boiler.

The ongoing heat outages come amid a fierce battle over the future of NYCHA, with Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson threatening a possible federal takeover of the authority if the city doesn't show that it can meet basic standards of safety and habitability by the end of the month. The city has until tomorrow to present a plan to rescue the agency to U.S. District Judge William Pauley III, who's presiding over a federal lawsuit alleging that NYCHA exposed residents to dangerous lead levels and then lied to prosecutors about their remediation efforts.

“One day before City Hall submits its joint status report on NYCHA to a Federal judge, over 1,400 public housing residents are again without working heat and hot water," Judith Goldiner, Attorney-In-Charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement. "This further underscores the need for governments to bolster NYCHA’s funding so that the Authority may more quickly replace antiquated boilers and other dated utility systems that have already failed thousands of residents during this winter season."

At the same time, few are confident that putting HUD Secretary Ben Carson in charge of the ailing agency would help solve the rampant boiler problems, or the many other basic maintenance issues plaguing tenants. "We still believe that NYCHA’s imperiled state would be exacerbated under a Federal receivership, and that it would be subjected to politics prioritized above the real interests of tenants," said Goldiner. "NYCHA’s woes have long been rooted in divestment; for this reason, increased funding on an unprecedented scale must be first and foremost."

Diaz says that he’s also concerned about a possible federal takeover. Many NYCHA residents seem to agree.

“I think all of the residents and all of NYCHA should get together and communicate with each other and put online like, ‘I have my ceiling open,’ or ‘mushrooms in my bathroom,’ because NYCHA lies about statistics,” Viviana Wrenn, a 28-year-old mother who's dealt with heat outages and a rats nest behind her sink, told Gothamist earlier week. “I think if we all got together and unified, I think we would be able to really show what's going on and be able to get these issues resolved without needing to have the federal government take over.”