NEW YORK CITY HALL — Few public-housing tenants have been insulated from heating failures this winter. System breakdowns have left more than 80 percent of New York City Housing Authority residents freezing for an average of two days as temperatures dipped to bone-chilling lows, officials told City Council lawmakers Tuesday.
Some 323,098 of the city's roughly 396,000 public-housing residents lost heat or hot water from Oct. 1 through Jan. 22, Cathy Pennington, NYCHA's acting executive vice president for operations, said at a hearing Tuesday before the Council's public housing and investigations committees.
Deep-freeze temperatures have strained NYCHA's aging boilers this winter, leaving tenants frequently without heat and hot water for long stretches. Those who lost hot water spent 52 hours without it on average, almost double last year's average of 27 hours, Pennington said. The typical heat outage lasted 48 hours, up from 34 hours during last year's cold season.
Rose Fernandez told lawmakers her kids sometimes cry themselves to sleep because it's so "painfully" cold in their apartment at Manhattan's Carver Houses.
"That's my life. Should anyone have to live like this?" Fernandez said at an often tense hearing before the Council's public housing and oversight committees.
NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye acknowledged the failures but said the housing authority has lacked the funds for years to keep its boilers in good condition. The authority's boilers and heat distribution systems need more than $2 billion worth of repairs, officials said.
"The interruption of service for any of our residents, but certainly on that scale, is unacceptable," Olatoye said.
Lawmakers excoriated Olatoye and the rest of NYCHA's leadership, saying a lack of funding isn't an excuse for leaving residents freezing. Officials knew the boilers were hanging by a thread and should have done more to shore them up proactively, said Councilman Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx), chair of the Committee on Oversight and Investigations.
"Imagine if we found out a private landlord wasn't providing heat to 80 percent of their residents," Councilwoman Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Brooklyn), chair of the Committee on Public Housing, said. "… We'd be talking about punishment, we'd be talking about fines and frankly, we'd be talking about jail."
Heating problems have grown as NYCHA lost more than a third of its heating technicians from 2013 through last year. Residents reported nearly 2,400 heating outages last year, up 76 percent from 2016, Torres said. Hot water outages spiked even more — there were more than 4,100 last year, more than triple the 916 reported in 2016.
But the housing authority doesn't have any pipeline of heating technicians. The city hasn't offered a civil service test for new workers since 2015, and NYCHA hasn't offered the certification for those workers since 2016, officials said.
The housing authority put several boilers on 24-hour watch during the extreme freeze that followed early January's massive snow storm. That and other efforts pushed the average length of heat outages to 16 hours and hot water outages to 10 hours and helped workers resolve 89 percent of outages within 24 hours, officials said.
NYCHA has $772 million in heat-related fixes in its five-year capital plan, Olatoye said. Mayor Bill de Blasio also committed $200 million to new boilers and other heating upgrades over the next four years.
Residents often interrupted Tuesday's hearing with expressions of deep distrust in NYCHA's leaders. When Olatoye was taking an oath to tell the truth, one shouted, "Uh-oh!"
Council members grew increasingly frustrated with NYCHA officails' reluctance, or inability, to give straightforward answers and provide numbers on the spot. Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, a third-term Democrat from Queens, called their performance "one of the worst that I've ever seen."
"It just does not seem that there is any sense of urgency among the staff at NYCHA," said Councilman Barry Grodenchik (D-Queens), who grew up in the Pomonok Houses.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) said some outside authority should be monitoring NYCHA's response to heat complaints, as residents without heat have no one to complain to other than the housing authority.
"NYCHA cannot be the fox guarding the henhouse," Johnson said. "There needs to be someone doing enforcement on NYCHA rather than NYCHA doing enforcement on themselves."
The heating failures, combined with revelations that NYCHA failed to perform legally mandated lead inspections for years, have led to increasingly aggressive calls for Olatoye's resignation. Three senior officials have resigned, including General Manager Michael Kelly, who oversees all of NYHCA's operations.
De Blasio has stood by Olatoye. At an unrelated news conference Tuesday, he reportedly said it's unfair to compare NYCHA to private landlords because of its cash-strapped state.
"People in public housing deserve the very best living standard we can give them with the money we have," the mayor reportedly said.