The finger-pointing among government officials began quickly when thousands of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents were literally left in the cold as the temperature dropped to record lows.
So far, unsurprisingly, no one is taking the blame for the unacceptable state of public housing heating infrastructure, which failed in dozens of buildings. Yet resident leaders have been calling for upgrades for years, warning that exactly what did happen would happen.
But NYCHA residents don’t need a culprit, they need action. And while the heating crisis prompted new promises from elected officials for new spending on infrastructure, forgive us residents if we are skeptical that the work will get done any time soon. For instance, it was reported that the $100 million allocated in 2016 to NYCHA by the state should have gone to new boilers but ended up going toward roof repairs, security cameras and cosmetic upgrades.
Elected officials have also been laying blame for heating problems at the feet of the federal government. It is certainly true that federal cuts have hit NYCHA hard. But that is no excuse for failing to protect the vulnerable residents of public housing residents. NYCHA is now saving tens of millions of dollars a year in fuel costs after converting a number of its buildings from heating oil to natural gas over the past few years.
That money should be dedicated to further conversions, thereby creating a virtuous cycle where NYCHA is saving millions and millions more each year to fund its own capital program. Those funds can also be used to greatly improve energy efficiency, saving even more money on fuel costs.
For example, in Wyckoff Garden House, where I was the resident association president for 12 years and a resident for 30 years, the apartment windows are in terrible shape, allowing heat (and money) to fly out.
This past winter freeze was a prime example. The heat was on, but the windy conditions entered our homes with a vengeance, causing a severe drop in temperature inside. So the buildings blast hot steam, wasting fuel and roasting residents.
A simple weatherization program would significantly reduce fuel costs for Wyckoff and other complexes alike, while improving quality of life, and better protecting the environment. These upgrades would add to fuel-cost savings and help fund additional infrastructure upgrades, accelerating needed repairs until the system is finally safe and sound for residents.
One potential problem with this plan, however, is that New York City is already maxing out on available natural gas during its coldest days. According to Con Ed, natural-gas demand has increased 25% in the past six years. The city’s largest source of natural gas, Transco, set new records in the amount of fuel delivered.
Groups like the New York Building Congress have warned this will lead to supply issues soon because there are not enough pipelines coming into the city. So government officials must also allow new connections to existing natural gas supply to fuel NYCHA conversions to natural gas, creating our cycle of costs savings and repairs.
Specifically, one project up for approval is the Northeast Supply Enhancement line, which would guarantee the supply needed for new conversions and increased demand. It must be built. By taking these prudent steps, our government officials can stop the blame game and immediately start delivering results for NYCHA residents who remain at great risk as the winter continues. There’s no excuse to leave us out in the cold.
Charlene Nimmons is the former resident association president for Wyckoff Garden Houses in Brooklyn and the CEO of Public Housing Communities Inc.