By Victoria Merlino
More than 18,000 Queens NYCHA residents faced unplanned heat and hot water outages during last year’s “heating season,” according to data reported by the agency. The outages reflect a citywide trend that has left tens of thousands of public housing tenants without functioning heat in the coldest months of the year, a period when landlords are required to provide heating under city law.
The tenant data, obtained by The Legal Aid Society through a Freedom of Information Law request, reveals that NYCHA residents in Queens faced 196 planned and unplanned outages between Oct. 1, 2018 to May 31, 2019 — a period referred to as a heat season by the city’s Housing Preservation and Development agency. In addition to the 18,020 Queens NYCHA tenants who faced unplanned outages, another 15,156 residents experienced planned outages, according to the data.
Up to 339,000 NYCHA residents were affected by heat and hot water outages during the previous heat season, according to the data. Roughly 400,000 people currently reside in NYCHA housing, the city reports, though the number is likely much higher because people share space in units where they do not appear on the lease.
In Queens, the Astoria Houses saw the greatest number of unplanned heat or hot water outages, with 18 outages affecting over 3,000 residents. The Pomonok Houses had the greatest number of planned outages in the borough, with 36 outages affecting almost 4,200 residents.
The majority of Queens NYCHA complexes experienced outages at some point in the measured timeframe, according to data. Only a handful of sites, including the Baisley Park Houses, had functioning heat and hot water throughout that time period.
NYCHA said planned outages allow the agency to complete repairs and preventive maintenance. Tenants are informed of the upcoming outages through flier and robocalls, NYCHA said.
Nevertheless, public housing tenants and advocates say the number of outages, especially in the coldest months of the year, was unacceptable and put tenants in danger.
Cynthia Tibbs, one of the leaders of the advocacy group Occupy NYCHA, demanded more accountability from NYCHA and the agency’s federal court appointed monitor Bart Schwartz
She said her NYCHA development, the West Side Urban Renewal Brownstones in Manhattan, went without heat for portions of October through March. She said she filed repair request tickets multiple times during the winter months.
“Every time I turned around I was putting tickets in,” Tibbs told the Eagle. “It was horrendous, we lost [heat] every other week.”
She said residents of her development were greatly affected by the outages, especially senior citizens who couldn’t afford heaters.
Tibbs said she was concerned with Schwartz’ spending on consultants and third-party experts, who racked up a bill of $20 million. The federal government appointed Schwartz monitor as part of a 2018 settlement with the city to reform its municipal housing system.
She also criticized new NYCHA head Gregory Russ, who was promised an unprecedented $400,000, a higher annual salary than the president of the United States.
Like Tibbs, Carmen Quiñones, another leader in Occupy NYCHA, had concerns over if NYCHA was spending its money in the most efficient way possible.
“Everybody is making money off the backs of the poor people living in city housing,” she said. Quiñones lives in the Frederick Douglass Houses in Manhattan, and noted her development was also affected by outages.
“When are some people going to jail? That’s what I want to know,” Quiñones said of NYCHA’s management.
Overall, 131,301 of NYCHA’s roughly 175,000 apartments experienced unplanned heat and/or hot water outages during last year’s heating season, which lasted from Oct.1, 2018 to May 31, 2019.
The Baruch Houses in Manhattan had the highest incidence of heat and hot water outages, the data indicates, with 171 planned outages.
“This data again demonstrates NYCHA’s daily struggle to ensure that public housing residents have access to working heat and hot water,” said Lucy Newman, staff attorney with Legal Aid’s Civil Law Reform Unit. “As the landlord, NYCHA has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that these necessary utilities are functioning properly.”
NYCHA acknowledged the problem of outages but said that heat and hot water outages dropped significantly in the previous heating season compared the the 2017-2018 season. The outages in the 2018-2019 heating season lasted an average of nine hours, with response time decreasing by 60 percent since the prior season. The agency said it has allocated nearly $1 billions to replace 310 boilers and distribution systems and improve heat and hot water services for nearly 158,000 residents over the next five years.
As for the outages included in the data obtained by Legal Aid, NYCHA General Manager Vito Mustaciuolo said staff worked “night and day to attack” the problem.
“As a result 70,000 fewer NYCHA residents lost heat this winter, we shortened our response time for service interruptions from 23 hours to 9 hours, and outages lasting longer than 24 hours fell by 93 percent,” Mustaciuolo said. “We’re proud of that progress and are already working through this summer to build on those improvements for the coming winter.”