“Most of the winter we didn’t have heat and hot water,” says Juanita Jefferson, 60, a resident of the Breukelen Houses public housing development in Canarsie. “We never had a problem like this before. I had to pull out my extra clothes, walk around in blankets. I have heaters in every room.”
Her neighbor Annette Tomlin, 55, says she went two weeks without heat or hot water during the January cold wave. “I’m kind of accustomed to it now,” says Tienico Ragland, 37, who lives in the attached building next door.
The Breukelen residents are not alone. The New York City Housing Authority estimates that by early February, 80 percent of its 180,000 apartments had gone without heat or hot water at least once this winter, affecting more than 320,000 people. Breukelen Houses Tenant Association president Calvin Drumgo says he’s been getting “23 to 24 calls a day” from tenants complaining about it. On February 27, a group of NYCHA tenant leaders from across the city filed a lawsuit demanding that a judge appoint an independent monitor to force the authority to provide consistent heat and hot water, among other complaints.
On a recent weekend afternoon, however, the three-story buildings on Glenwood Road have the opposite problem. With the temperature a relatively balmy 40 degrees, the heat is blazing.
“If it’s freezing outside, don’t expect heat. If it’s warm outside, expect heat,” says Ragland, standing in her orange-painted hallway wearing a light summer dress.
“It fails to regulate,” says Tomlin, a freelance healthcare office worker who’s lived in her first-floor apartment for 23 years. She says tenants go from “like a sauna” to “shivering like you’re in Alaska.”
Breukelen residents say the complex’s boilers haven’t been replaced since the development opened in 1952. The New York State Homes and Community Renewal agency projects the “useful life” of a steel boiler at 25 years. Drumgo says NYCHA has promised the development will get a new boiler in 2020 — two winters away. (Neither NYCHA nor the City Hall press office responded to multiple requests for comment from the Voice.)
The repair problems at the Breukelen Houses are just part of a larger crisis threatening to overwhelm the city’s housing authority. Decades of government disinvestment coupled with aging buildings have increased the backlog in NYCHA’s capital budget, which covers major renovations such as replacing roofs and boilers, to more than $20 billion, estimates Community Service Society senior housing policy analyst Victor Bach, more than triple what the gap was in 2011.
This, he says, would only be worsened by President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2019, which would “effectively eliminate capital subsidies” to NYCHA, cutting them by $210 million. It also proposes reducing operating subsidies by $130 million and raising rents by 17 percent or more for many tenants.
NYCHA, says Bach, is “moving in the right direction, but clearly not enough to deal with critical problems” like boiler upkeep.
The Breukelen Houses development, pronounced “Brook-Ellen” by its residents, consists of thirty buildings spread over five blocks near the East 105th Street stop on the L line. It’s relatively low-rise as city projects go, with some buildings three stories tall and others seven. The 1,595 units officially have 3,605 residents, according to NYCHA figures; Drumgo says the actual number is more than 5,000 thanks to off-the-books family members and roommates.
When the development opened on November 6, 1952, it combined the social benevolence of the New Deal — the belief that the government should help working people move from overcrowded tenements to spacious, clean, new apartments — with the optimistic prosperity of postwar America. With hundreds of new single-family and two-family homes also built in the neighborhood, Canarsie’s population more than doubled between 1950 and 1970.
That era ended in the 1970s. Many of Canarsie’s white residents had arrived after fleeing the nearby neighborhoods, leaving Brownsville and East New York as crime rates went up as those areas became predominantly black, and East Flatbush as “blockbusting” realtors panicked white homeowners into believing they’d get stuck in a ghetto if they didn’t quickly sell their homes at half price. Canarsie’s white residents violently resisted black people moving in and black kids being bused into neighborhood schools, as several houses sold to black families were firebombed.
South of Linden Boulevard, then the boundary between Canarsie and Brownsville, the Breukelen Houses were home to the neighborhood’s largest concentration of black residents. The project was fairly evenly mixed between whites and blacks in 1970, sociologist Jonathan Rieder wrote in Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism; by 2000, it was about 90 percent black, with most of the other residents Latinos.
That year, the election of Ronald Reagan, whose social Darwinist worldview expressed resentment of taxpayers subsidizing the “dependency” of the undeserving, led to 50 percent cuts in federal aid for low-income housing, while residents of federally subsidized housing were hit with rent increases. In 1998, Governor George Pataki cut off state subsidies, leaving NYCHA with a $60 million a year budget shortfall; a few years later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut off additional city subsidies. By 2006, NYCHA was running an operating deficit of more than $200 million a year. Between 2002 and 2016, the authority’s total staff, serving 326 developments with 2,462 buildings, was reduced from about 15,000 to 11,000.
The budget cuts have taken a particular toll on the workers who maintain NYCHA buildings’ aging boilers. The number of heating plant technicians has fallen from 370 in 2012 to 256 today, and that includes 12 who came on the job in January, says Kevin Norman, director of the housing division of Teamsters Local 237, which represents them.
NYCHA’s intention “was to shrink administrative positions, but front-line management and caretaking staff at the developments were also affected,” the Community Service Society wrote in a March 2017 report, “Public Housing: New York’s Third City.” “Tightened resources meant poorer management and fewer repairs or improvements to its aging buildings.” By 2014, the city’s triennial Housing and Vacancy Survey found more than one-third of public housing residents reporting at least three problems such as lack of heat, rodents, and water leaks, more than 50 percent more than residents of privately owned housing — a gap that escalated sharply after 2008.
Meanwhile, as rents in private housing soared, NYCHA, where rents are generally set at 30 percent of household income, became the main source of housing for New Yorkers who make less than $40,000 a year. By 2014, based on income figures from the Housing and Vacancy Survey, NYCHA buildings must have accounted for more than half the 333,000 apartments in the city that rented for less than $800 a month.
“Unlike lower-income tenants in the private rental market, their crisis is not affordability, but whether they can survive the deterioration of their buildings and homes, and the institutional failings of an authority attempting to stem the decline with only marginal support,” the CSS “Third City” report said.
In 2015, a city comptroller’s audit ranked the Breukelen Houses’ repair backlog worst among NYCHA developments in Brooklyn, with 897 “noncurrent work orders” as of the previous July, and 44 outstanding Department of Buildings violations and 6 outstanding Environmental Control Board violations as of the previous September.
Tenants at Breukelen Houses complain about the slowness of repairs. Several apartments have plaster bubbling out of the walls from water leaks. In one woman’s home, the flap over the door peephole is a piece of duct tape.
“When it rains, I have to put down rags,” says Jefferson, who’s lived in Breukelen since 1983. “I’ve seen this project go down terribly. It used to be beautiful out here. It was great living.”
In his State of the City speech this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio said his administration has put $2.1 billion in city money into major capital investments in NYCHA, and $1.6 billion for operating expenses, intended to reduce the authority’s ordinary-repair backlog. That, he added, has paid for “almost a thousand new roofs for residents who suffered from mold and leaks” and “new boilers and heating systems in the developments that need it the most.”
“The City of New York under my administration has, pound for pound, year for year, contributed more to NYCHA than ever before in history,” he told WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer on February 16. De Blasio also stopped charging NYCHA more than $70 million a year for police services , and has committed $100 million a year for roof replacements. But he told Lehrer that the added $2.1 billion in capital funds had to be spread over several years to be spent “effectively.” The maintenance problems at Breukelen Houses go deeper than money, says Calvin Drumgo. The individual manager at Breukelen is good, he says; asked what’s causing the overall problems, he gives an all-of-the-above answer: “Mismanagement. The lack of funds. The lack of workers. The lack of workmanship. The lack of leadership at 250 Broadway [NYCHA headquarters]. There’s no accountability for heat and hot water, which is something fundamental for people to live.”
The city is also in the process of leasing vacant land such as parking lots at four public housing projects to developers, to construct buildings that would be half market-rate and half “affordable.” Half the proceeds would go to the affected project, and the other half to NYCHA’s general fund. In January, the city announced that it had selected Two Trees and Arker Companies — both significant contributors to de Blasio’s campaigns — as developers to build 500 units at Wyckoff Gardens in downtown Brooklyn. These plans have drawn opposition from residents who say they haven’t been given a voice in the process and fear they would bring more gentrification than repairs.
NYCHA management is so centralized, Norman says, that workers need approval from the borough office to buy light bulbs. To keep heating systems functioning, he notes, you need enough workers to monitor boilers continually and check pipes constantly. Yet the authority has let the heating staff dwindle through attrition, while asking Local 237 to stop training workers on the grounds that the union’s program needed to be revamped.
Victor Bach adds that NYCHA needs to reform its management to make it more effective. Only in 2016 did it extend its hours so development managers and maintenance staff are available after 4:30 p.m., he notes.
The way the authority handles heat complaints lacks transparency, he adds. NYCHA is required to comply with the city’s heat laws, but complaints about heat in public housing go not to the city’s main 311 number, but to NYCHA’s internal hotline. (If residents call 311, they’re told to call that hotline.) Unlike privately owned buildings, violations and complaints at NYCHA buildings aren’t listed online by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Department of Buildings. And if NYCHA fails to make repairs, it’s not subject to HPD’s Emergency Repair Program, in which the city hires contractors and bills the owner. All this should change, Bach says.
NYCHA has also not provided information on the age of its buildings’ boilers to Bronx Democratic councilmember Ritchie Torres — “something we’ve been requesting for some time,” says a Torres spokesperson.*
“We need things to be addressed right here, right now. It’s just excuse after excuse after excuse after excuse,” Tomlin says, sitting on her couch, pointing out the duct tape on her radiator. “Housing shouldn’t have waited 25 years to look at something you knew was going to depreciate.”
“I’m blessed. I’m grateful,” says a 56-year-old woman who doesn’t want to give her name. “But I shouldn’t have to live like this.”
Over the winter, she says, she kept her oven on at night so the apartment would be warm when she got up at 4 a.m. to get ready for work as a fraud investigator.
“I work hard. I work twelve hours a day,” she says. “I should be able to come home to a nice decent comfortable apartment.”
*UPDATE: A spokesperson for Councilmember Torres emailed after publication to say that “the Council received the information on Feb. 5th, the day before the hearing on boilers.” The Voice has requested data on the ages of NYCHA boilers and is awaiting more details.