No Heat In These Streets

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New Yorkers are no strangers to cold weather. When your state gets pummeled by “bomb cyclones”, chilly outdoor temperatures are just part of the territory. However, no one signed up for wintry weather inside of their homes. Unfortunately, for Far Rockaway residents living in the Redfern Houses, this was a frigid reality. Approximately 1,500 residents were forced to suffer the freezing temperatures for nearly a week. According to residents, heating became an issue towards the end of December 2017, with several people complaining of lack of heat. According to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the spotty service was due to two defective pumps that move water between the development’s boilers and a tank. After the first pump broke and was repaired, the second malfunctioned, necessitating NYCHA workers to build a new pump. The additional repairs and rebuild caused more disruptions with the building’s heating.

On January 4th, residents hosted a press conference at the Redfern Houses to discuss this human rights issue. Residents spoke to the press about the dangerous conditions and demanded a solution. Council Member Donovan Richards and State Senator James Sanders Jr. also showed their support and spoke on behalf of residents. Redfern Houses Tenant Association President Glenn Collins organized the press conference and expressed his frustration about the treatment of Redfern residents, noting that longevity of the issues. He said, “We’ve had these problems since Sandy. No one is listening.” The city had begun work in November 2017 on a $123 million Sandy recovery project at Redfern Houses that will include new boilers and generators designed to withstand extreme weather conditions, as well as elevated electrical infrastructure and new roofs.

After the press conference, a NYCHA representative claimed that the “heat is on” at Redfern Houses, but residents were still experiencing periods of intermittent heating in their homes. Many claim that NYCHA was unresponsive to resident complaints of lack of heat and did not do their due diligence to ensure that every unit had heat after resetting the boilers. The Department of Investigation is looking into how NYCHA handled the outages at Redfern Houses, including allegations that NYCHA was fraudulently closing heat-complaint tickets before the issue had been fixed.

Queens residents weren’t the only ones to be affected by lack of heating. NYCHA developments across the city experienced issues with heating, including buildings in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan. The problem was so widespread that NYCHA received nearly 6,000 heat complaints between December 25th and December 27th alone. Mayor de Blasio expressed his outrage at the situation, urging private renters to “alert the city” if their landlords were not providing heat and initially promising to spend $13 million in the immediate term to better respond to heating emergencies. Then, on January 31st, de Blasio pledged to spend $20 million to install replacement boilers at 20 NYCHA developments that face chronic hearing issues, which would improve the heating systems for over 100 NYCHA buildings, and provide other heating system improvement measures at 10 additional NYCHA developments. To become reality, the proposal must be approved by the City Council as a part of their capital spending plan. Altogether, de Blasio’s plan would not begin until the start of the new fiscal year in July and would not be completed until the end of 2022. For many freezing NYCHA residents, this is simply not fast enough, and public housing advocates point to decades of inexcusable neglect and underfunding that brought NYCHA to this critical point.

This situation brings into question the treatment of residents in public housing developments, as well as the effectiveness of the public housing model in the United States. With roots stretching back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and the massive displacement of low-income Manhattan neighborhoods to the outer boroughs during the Robert Moses era, perceptions of public housing have changed over time. However, in New York City, the inception of NYCHA in 1934 marked the beginning of the authority's reign as a “gold standard”. While NYCHA may be a lauded fixture in the history of public housing, incidents like this prove that there is much to be done with the model. Until changes are made, residents living in public housing developments must continue to be their own advocates.