Early on Wednesday morning, residents of the Moore Houses complex in the Bronx woke up without heat. Restoration was expected by 12 p.m., but by 4 p.m., NYCHA’s website still said Moore was without heat. More than one thousand people had gone for hours without heat on a day when a snow squall whipped through the city and temperatures were in the 20s. They weren’t the only NYCHA residents without heat or hot water. Outages increased as morning approached a close. A building in the Harlem River Houses complex lost hot water. So did a building in the Soundview complex. A building in Claremont Rehab in the Bronx lost both heat and hot water. These problems didn’t start on Wednesday, either. On Tuesday, senior citizens in the neighborhood of East New York complained that the Penn Wortman Community Center, where many of them go for meals and activities, lacked heat. “The senior citizens say they’re freezing, uncomfortable, separated, can’t continue their typical activities and sometimes can’t even get their meals because the room is too cold,” News 12 Brooklyn reported.
This week’s outages are not an unusual circumstance for NYCHA residents. Though Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in October that the city had hired 50 new heating technicians and added 5 new mobile boilers in an attempt to keep NYCHA’s heat on this winter, those efforts haven’t prevented repeated outages. That creates a problem for the mayor, who had defended NYCHA improvements on January 22 by pointing out that the city had reduced repair times to an average of nine hours. But this week, the city faces double deadlines. A polar vortex is on the way. And as Gothamist reported, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has given the city and federal prosecutors until tomorrow, January 31, to finalize a plan to make NYCHA properties more livable for residents. HUD Secretary Ben Carson did not explicitly threaten receivership – a federal takeover – but the possibility exists. In November, Judge William Pauley rejected a proposed settlement between NYCHA and the Manhattan D.A.’s office, finding it insufficient; he suggested receivership as a potential solution.
NYCHA was a political football long before a federal takeover was put on the table. De Blasio and New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, have frequently squabbled over the sources of and solutions to the city’s housing crisis. Cuomo has accused the city of mismanaging NYCHA; the city says it needs more funding from the state and from the federal government. There’s a grain of truth in both arguments. Pauley, the judge, suggested receivership in a ruling that condemned NYCHA for failing to carry out necessary lead testing in its units. The New York Times reported that NYCHA didn’t just neglect its responsibility to test for lead, it launched a “counter-offensive” every time a test did turn up evidence of lead. “From 2010 through July of this year, the agency challenged 95 percent of the orders it received from the Health Department to remove lead detected in NYCHA apartments,” the Times said in November 2018. That practice was did not start with de Blasio, but it did continue during his tenure.
Separate from the mismanagement issue, the city faces other major obstacles in its attempts to improve public housing. NYCHA infrastructure started crumbling well before de Blasio took office; the boiler plants responsible for keeping NYCHA residents comfortable are sometimes 30 to 40 years old. Hurricane Sandy then inflicted significant damage on aging buildings, as The Nation reported on Tuesday, which leaves them ill-equipped to handle future weather events. Eighty percent of NYCHA residents – about 323,000 residents – lost heat or hot water at some point last winter, according to Politico, and it will take around $32 billion to fully resolve needed capital repairs over the next five years.
Receivership might not solve these problems. If anything, the prospect of a second government shutdown in three weeks only further undermines the usefulness of a federal takeover. Carson is a Donald Trump appointee, after all; he serves an administration committed to shrinking the size of its own government. In a December press release setting the January 31 deadline, Carson demanded a plan that included “a reduction of unwarranted costs” in addition to capital improvements. Those two demands don’t square easily with each other, and it’s difficult to believe Carson would authorize the sort of funding NYCHA needs. As secretary, he has overseen over a decline in the number of public housing units that meet basic health and safety standards. NYCHA tenants themselves told Gothamist that they’re skeptical about a HUD takeover.
No matter what happens tomorrow, when the vortex hits and Carson’s deadline comes due, the city’s low-income people face trouble from all sides. Some may now take matters into their own hands. On Tuesday, AM New York reported that residents of the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City are contemplating a rent strike. “We want to shut down NYCHA because we’re not getting repairs done,” Sylvia White of the Justice for All Coalition told the news outlet. “It’s forcing them to take a real good close look at what they are doing to the people in the community.”