Borough President Eric Adams joined tenant leaders in front of the Gowanus Houses community center on Monday to voice their concerns about heating and boiler systems issues. As the cold weather intensified, Adams said his office has received heating complaints from 19 public housing developments, potentially affecting 40,000 residents.
The borough president acknowledged that the state and federal government has long “turned their backs” on NYCHA, leaving the housing authority with $25 billion in capital needs.
“New York City, unfortunately, has been the sole entity that has carried this burden,” Adams said. “We have been abandoned by Albany and abandoned by Washington, D.C.”
Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would invest $200 million to replace boilers and upgrade heating systems at 20 NYCHA developments. The renovations will be finished by 2022, and will benefit approximately 45,000 residents.
City officials estimate that these upgrades will help NYCHA save $5 billion annually in energy costs.
“Like our investment to replace aging roofs, this commitment to new heating systems cuts right to the heart of the biggest problems NYCHA residents face, and will make a different thousands of them will feel,” de Blasio said.
But Adams said the city, and NYCHA, can do more to improve conditions for public housing residents suffering from the cold. He called on the housing authority to reinvest recent and future energy savings to improve heating and boiler systems.
According to a report by the Citizen Budget Commission, NYCHA saved $48 million in utility costs from 2013 to 2016 due to a conversion from oil to natural gas. However, Adams said those funds did not go back into capital projects, such as boiler replacements.
“These are low-hanging fruit, these are things we can do now,” he said. “Let’s have a dedicated lockbox that money is put into the conversion process so we can continue these savings.”
Adams asked for Albany for help as well. He called on the governor to issue an emergency declaration to expedite resources and funding for improvements.
He also demanded Governor Andrew Cuomo allow the city to use design-build, a process that allows one contractor to both design and implement the project, lowering costs and expediting the timeline.
“If it’s good and the governor and his projects, it’s good for NYCHA residents and the projects we’re dealing with here,” Adams said.
The borough president recommended having additional public-private partnerships to bring more funds for fixes. He noted that many prominent people, including Whoopi Goldberg and Jay Z, were born in public housing.
“NYCHA gave them their start,” he said. “We’re reaching out to those prominent New Yorkers to say, don’t forget the buildings you were raised in.”
His last suggestion was for NYCHA to create a publicly accessible capital project dashboard. By listing the projects NYCHA officials are working on, and giving residents a sense of the timeline for improvements, they can have better information, Adams said.
Tenant leaders from nearby NYCHA developments spoke about the conditions they lived in. Margaret Brishbon, a resident of Gowanus Houses since 1963, said for tw-and-a-half months, she lived without gas. She had to cook on a hot plate, and the situation was worsened by her diabetes.
“It’s so hard,” she said. “And there was no heat. I had to wear clothes like I’m going outside to be in the apartment.’
Charlene Nimmons, a former tenant association president at Wyckoff Gardens, said she’s fed up that NYCHA residents’ voices are not being heard. She said she asked to meet with the housing authority about energy savings in September. They never came back to the table, Nimmons said.
“Not only are we looking for conversions, but we need to make sure our properties are weatherized. Our windows need to be insulated, our buildings need to be wrapped,” she said.
“So when you do fix the system, and we do get the heat, we can keep the heat inside.”
After the press conference, Adams and other residents visited Brishbon’s apartment. Adams proposed to stay for one night with a public housing resident to “see what it’s like.” The borough president offered to bring his vegan dinner as well.
Adams also asked the City Council to consider holding future hearings on public housing within NYCHA developments. He said it would be a good way to bring attention to the real issues facing tenants.
When asked if he supported other elected officials’ calls for NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye to step down, Adams said he’s concerned about results, not placing blame.
“Stop pointing the finger of blame, come up with your solutions,” he said. “The problems of NYCHA didn’t start with Shola.”
NYCHA spokeswoman Jasmine Blake said the problem with boiler replacements isn’t procurement regulations, which are the only thing an emergency declaration would ease.
“It’s the design, building and installation of massive boilers and heating systems that takes years. No declaration is going to impact those time frames,” Blake said. “We’re working with the city to find ways to accelerate the permitting and approval processes that are within our control.”