The Marble Hill Houses won’t see new boilers for a few more winters. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY
The City
This story was originally published on November 11, 2019 by THE CITY.

With winter approaching, the federal monitor overseeing the New York City Housing Authority gave preliminary approval last Wednesday to spend a $450 million pile of backlogged state funds, including $363 million to upgrade obsolete boilers.

But the fine print from NYCHA monitor Bart Schwartz says that those new boilers won’t begin to come online until 2023, seven years after Gov. Andrew Cuomo first began setting aside the money — and most don’t even have a completion date yet.

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That means at least four more winters with old, on-the-brink heating equipment at 25 developments owed new boilers using the state funds, which was budgeted as far back as 2016.

NYCHA was roundly criticized two years ago when more than 300,000 residents experienced heat outages during a brutal winter. Multiple developments are squeaking by with boilers that are falling apart and only getting older.

Among them is Marble Hill Houses in The Bronx, where $13.7 million in state funds is allocated to pay for six new boilers that will thunder to life — four heat seasons from now.

On Friday, when the temperatures dipped into the 30s for the first time this fall, Marble Hill residents were scratching their heads at the extraordinary governmental maneuvers that could make improvements to their homes take so long.

“That seems like a lot of time just to install the boilers,” said Orion Kendall, 21, who’s lived in Marble Hill Houses since he was 9. “It’s upsetting but it feels like one of those things that it’s not overly surprising. It just feels like this isn’t an isolated experience.”

At times, he said, the heat would go out, “sometimes in the middle of winter, which is the best time you want to actually have heat.”

While he says it didn’t bother him too much, “my grandmother, she is not a fan of it. The second it starts to get temperatures like this, she needs the heat.”

Christian Perez, 43, walking his pit bull, Lala, and his mother’s shih tzu, Lucky, through Marble Hill Friday said he regularly visits his mom, a Marble Hill tenant for 12 years. In the last two years, the heat has gone out in her building, at times when the cold outside is unbearable.

“It’s snowing. It’s slush out here. Why would they let that sh-t build up like that?” he said. “It’s rough. She would have to dress up in layers. Sometimes she would have to turn on the oven, you know, just to get a little heat out of it.”

Marble Hill Houses resident Orion Kendall said his family sometimes has to heat water on their stove when his building's boiler is out of service.

Marble Hill Houses resident Orion Kendall said his family sometimes has to heat water on their stove when his building’s boiler is out of service. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

In giving the green light, Schwartz also released details of NYCHA’s budget breakdown and timeline to install 108 new boilers in 25 developments, as well as 148 new elevator cars in 10 complexes.

NYCHA estimates the investments will improve the lives of nearly 80,000 of its 400,000 residents.

But the plan put forth by NYCHA sets an “anticipated completion end date” for boilers in nine developments of June 2023.

That’s when the tenants of Jackson Houses in the Melrose section of The Bronx can expect to at long last feel the heat from six new boilers, with $13.3 million in state funds. On Friday, tenants in two buildings at this 55-year-old development had been dealing with electrical outages dating to July and a gas outage that started on Thursday. NYCHA’s website listed repairs as “in progress.”

As for the other 16 developments targeted for new boilers, their “anticipated completion end date” is an acronym in Schwartz’s records: TBD. As in “to be determined.”

Elevator replacement is also in the Twilight Zone through at least July 2022. Some developments won’t see new lifts until 2023.

Carey Gardens in Coney Island, Brooklyn, where the elevators experience an average of at least one outage each month, has a January 2023 “anticipated completion end date” for nine new cars funded by $3.4 million. About one-third of the residents there are senior citizens or have mobility or vision challenges.

Funding Granted and Paused

While relief for NYCHA tenants remains still years away, the state funds to pay for the improvements have already been on the books for up to three years — then held back at Cuomo’s insistence.

Way back in June 2016, the governor put $200 million into the fiscal year 2017 state budget to help NYCHA upgrade decaying building systems. A year later, he added another $250 million.

By deciding to steer money to NYCHA, Cuomo reversed a course set by Gov. George Pataki, who stopped sending state money NYCHA’s way in the late 1990s.

Cuomo first allocated $100 million in 2015, but wound up handing it over to local assembly members to dole out to developments in their districts for small-scale projects, like new security cameras.

Distrustful of NYCHA management’s ability to effectively spend the money they’re given, Cuomo refused to turn the 2016 and 2017 funding over until he could be assured there was adequate oversight in place. He demanded that NYCHA provide the state with a detailed plan spelling out how they’d spend it and arrange for independent oversight to make sure what they promised actually occurred.

For years negotiations dragged. NYCHA and former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen submitted several plans to the state. By spring 2018, Cuomo was insisting that NYCHA hire an “independent construction manager” to handle the state funds. NYCHA says the state “terminated discussions” in March 2018.

A few months later, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman announced de Blasio and NYCHA had signed off on a consent decree to settle a civil lawsuit he filed charging the authority had deliberately misled the federal government about the conditions of its buildings.

That agreement, ultimately amended in January outside court supervision, resulted in the appointment of the monitor. Cuomo then announced he would release the money subject to the monitor’s approval of NYCHA’s plan. Schwartz gave his preliminary thumbs-up last week.

In an email response to THE CITY’s questions about whether the governor feels the funding could have materialized faster, Cuomo’s press secretary, Caitlin Girouard, made clear on Friday the governor wants to see the money go to work right away.

“For years the New York City Housing Authority was underfunded by the Federal government and its administrators,” she wrote. “NYCHA’s 400,000 residents deserve far better living conditions than they have, and we want to see the projects supported by the State’s unprecedented $450 million commitment executed as quickly as possible.”

Ongoing Decay

During the years of delay, the condition of the boilers and elevators in the developments targeted for improvements went down, while the cost of fixing some of them went up — in some cases, way up.

NYCHA has a number rating system for equipment, from Category 1 designated as “good condition” to Category 5, which is “failing” with “obsolete equipment” and “excessive outage issues.”

Between 2017 and 2018, while the state money was in limbo, nine of the 25 developments picked for new heating systems saw their boilers slide down into Category 5, bringing the total number of developments on the state’s list with “failing” boilers to 12.

The Louis H. Pink Houses in Brooklyn, which are set to get $12.1 million to pay for six new boilers, dropped from Category 3 — “fair condition” — to Category 5, “failing.” The“anticipated completion end date” for new boilers is June 2023.

While the budget of installation of some of these heating systems and new elevators stayed more or less consistent since the money was first proposed, the projected cost at some developments went through the proverbial roof.

At the Gowanus Houses in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, the estimated cost of installing six new heating systems as reported in state budget documents was $11.5 million. The document released by the NYCHA monitor last week now estimates the Gowanus heat system upgrade will cost $41.4 million.

The cost of putting in seven new heating systems in the Marcy Houses in Brooklyn went from an estimated $19 million in the 2017 state budget to $55 million under the plan NYCHA submitted last week.

And both Gowanus and Marcy have yet to receive a designated completion date for installation of those systems. They remain in the “TBD” universe.

As a result, NYCHA now says the $450 million will not be enough to cover all the costs as originally planned. In its response to the monitor, NYCHA said it would rely on federal funds to make up the difference.

And while the finish line is in sight, the final lap has yet to officially begin. That’s because NYCHA monitor Schwartz only gave his preliminary approval, taking the position that the plan still does not have enough detail for him to believe it will succeed.

Schwartz specifically noted that the plan as presented relies on NYCHA adopting a process known as “design build,” which allows them to hire one contractor to both design and build the heating systems and elevator upgrades. Usually NYCHA hires designers and builders separately, which slows down completion.

“NYCHA’s inexperience in the work of design build construction must be factored into scheduling commitments if NYCHA is to be successful in meeting interim and long-term deadlines,” Schwartz wrote in a memo to NYCHA Chair Greg Russ Wednesday.

NYCHA has hired a contractor, Jacobs Project Management, to come up with a specific set of milestones for each boiler and elevator car, which the company must produce by Dec. 6. At that point if all goes well, Schwartz will give his final approval.

The authority expects to meet its deadline by year’s end, according to spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio.

“This plan represents the required “green light” to move forward with the design and construction of these projects and NYCHA will work with the Federal Monitor to meet the December 31st deadline to have schedules in place,” she said.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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