The living conditions of the 100 or so residents of the Eagle Avenue apartments are emblematic of sweeping neglect by NYCHA.
Evelyn and Franklin Badia’s wish of qualifying for a public housing apartment became a reality in 2011 after eight years of waiting.
They were ecstatic to be chosen from a list of hundreds of thousands of other applicants, which allowed them to move with their three children into a new three-bedroom home in the South Bronx during the warm summer months. The apartment was affordable, spacious and even had a courtyard with a playground.
Then it got cold outside. Inside, too.
The heat in their apartment — owned by the New York City Housing Authority, also known as Nycha — didn’t work that winter, or any winter after, they said.
When temperatures drop, the family brings out small electric space heaters, which they purchased, and duct tapes the edges of their windows to no avail. On the chilliest nights, the parents snuggle in one bed with their 6 and 11-year-old daughters, whose asthma worsens as a result of the cold temperatures.
Living conditions for the 100-or-so residents of the Eagle Avenue apartments are emblematic of sweeping neglect by Nycha, the landlord for the nearly 400,000 people in public housing which has been accused of malfeasance, mismanagement and of mishandling the removal of lead paint and mold from its apartments. Federal prosecutors are aiming to impose stricter oversight on the agency, with a takeover as one possibility.
The conditions on Eagle Avenue — one of four buildings in a complex called South Bronx Area Site 402 — are consistent with other complaints residents have leveled at the agency; Nycha has been under fire for widespread heat and hot water outages at several housing projects.
“Winter is long,” said Ms. Badia, 38, a home health aide who lives in one of the apartments on Eagle Avenue. “How am I supposed to tolerate this? Where am I supposed to go? If I could afford it, I would move.”
For the past two weeks, The Times repeatedly asked Nycha about conditions at the Eagle Avenue apartments. This week, just before this article was published, the authority said the piping system in the building that distributes heat would be replaced this winter.
More space heaters, more frustration
Residents from more than two dozen households in the 36-unit walk-up on Eagle Avenue between 158th and 161st Streets told the The New York Times that repeated complaints about inadequate heat have gone unheeded by Nycha, their landlord.
Most tenants who had moved into the building within the past 10 years said that nonfunctional heaters had been the norm since they moved into the three-story, red brick building, which was built in the late 1980s. Longtime residents estimated that the heat began to falter about a decade ago.
A reporter visited 27 apartments, many of them on multiple occasions, over a five-day span this month, as outside temperatures hovered in the 30s. In most homes, the living room and bedroom heaters sat cold. Some dispensed faint, lukewarm air that residents said did not keep their dwellings warm, especially at night.
Work orders submitted to Nycha to address heating issues were either closed out without explanation or went unaddressed by workers, the residents said. Many got discouraged and stopped complaining.
“I’m responsible for them”
“If residents are telling you that for the last several years they’ve been experiencing these problems, that’s unacceptable,” Vito Mustaciuolo, the general manager at Nycha, said earlier this week.
He added: “They are my buildings. I’m responsible for them. We will do everything that we can to ensure that the residents get the level of service that they deserve.”
Landlords in New York City are legally required to provide heat and hot water to tenants. The temperature inside residential buildings must be at least 68 degrees if the temperature outside falls below 55 degrees. Regardless of outside temperature, apartments must be at least 62 degrees inside at night.
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development enforces these laws in privately-owned buildings. Private landlords are subject to fines as much as $1,000 per day for repeated heat violations.
But the city does not enforce the laws at buildings owned by Nycha. Housing advocates have long argued that Nycha effectively polices itself.
This year, for the first time, Nycha topped the public advocate’s list of the worst landlords in New York City.
Mr. Mustaciuolo said there have been fewer outages across Nycha buildings during this heating season and that, on average, issues have been addressed within 10 hours. Boilers located in the musty cellar of 834 Eagle Avenue, which provide heat to residents, were flagged for numerous violations and defects before being replaced with new ones in 2016 — at a cost of $250,000.
The four new boilers haven’t showed signs of defects, according to city records. Residents said they do have hot water.
But low-rise buildings, like the one on Eagle Avenue, present unique challenges for Nycha compared to the agency’s iconic red brick high-rises, Mr. Mustaciuolo said. For example, the pipes that distribute heat in the smaller buildings run through a hollow area below the first floor that can be hard to keep insulated, which can cause pipes to lose heat.
Nycha sent heat technicians to the building after The Times first inquired about the conditions at Eagle Avenue about two weeks ago.
“Any disruption of service that residents experience in the past should not be discounted, but right now my primary focus is to fix what the problems are now,” said Mr. Mustaciuolo, who was appointed to the job earlier this year.
Twelve years and counting
Every winter, Wanda Agee covers her television stand in bright-red wrapping paper to make it resemble a chimney: “Wishful thinking.”
“I haven’t had heat for 12 years,” said Ms. Agee, a pre-K teacher who has lived with her husband, Larry, a hotel maintenance worker, in a two-bedroom apartment in the building since 1986. “We’ve been waiting.”
Ms. Agee has stopped submitting work orders and makes do by covering her windows with plastic tarps and garbage bags and using four space heaters. Her monthly electricity bills can be as high as $300, she said.
“They’re not going to come and fix no pipes,” Ms. Agee said last week. “I used to turn on my oven for heat and that was sickening. I want to get out of here not because of the neighborhood or the rent. Imagine, to move just because of heat?”
Grace Maldonado, the building’s resident association president, blamed the problems on those tasked with the day-to-day upkeep at the housing project. In November, she organized a meeting where residents could air grievances to the development’s manager.
“They’re aware of these problems,” said Ms. Maldonado, 62, who worked for decades as a supervisor for Nycha. “How do you leave these people for years without heat? How can you be so irresponsible and uncaring and get away with it?”
Families find ways to cope
Jeannett Ceballo, a resident who also works in maintenance for Nycha, said she often sleeps in her living room because the bedrooms facing the street get too cold during the winter.
Nubia Martinez’s sons, dressed in clothing for the outdoors, also sleep on living room couches. This winter, the family moved a bed into the living room hoping they could warm up when using the dryer.
Many other residents, despite the safety risks, leave their ovens on while inside their apartments.
On very cold days, Noelia Bran Montano boils a pot of water on her stove — a trick used by other neighbors.
Ms. Bran Montano, a single mother of three boys who is from the Dominican Republic, said she hasn’t had adequate heat since she moved in three years ago. The five heaters she scatters around the apartment have caused $600 worth of utility bills, which she has not paid. She said she loses sleep at night worrying about the potential fire hazard of having space heaters in her sons’ bedrooms.
“My kids don’t stop getting sick,” she said in Spanish.
She has been waiting for Nycha to send someone to fix her living room heater since last December, according to work orders reviewed by The Times. She submitted three heat-related work orders this year, but workers showed up only once and then left without fixing the heater, she said.
On a recent evening, Mr. Badia wrapped a purple blanket around his feet and lounged on a red couch in his living room. Heat radiated from the $90 electric space heater he had purchased.
“Imagine, I work in the cold all day and then I come home to the same cold,” said Mr. Badia, 44, who works delivering pizza late nights into the early morning.
Ms. Badia has reported the lack of heat to Nycha six times since Oct. 26 through a mobile app residents use to request repairs, according to records reviewed by The Times. Nycha closed five of the work orders within 24 hours without having anyone show up, Ms. Badia said.
Robin Levine, a spokeswoman for Nycha, wrote in an email last week that on one occasion a resident in Ms Badia’s apartment did not allow workers to enter the apartment, a claim Ms. Badia disputed. Ms. Levine did not elaborate on the circumstances behind the other closed work orders.
Ms. Levine said, in general, heat in the apartments was escaping through windows and doors in need of additional insulation. She said the heaters were working and recommended that residents move furniture away from the heater to increase heat circulation.
But during a recent visit by a reporter, only a small trickle of tepid air emanated from the heaters in several apartments. Ms. Badia said her daughters were sleeping with an electric space heater at night because of the cold.
“How am I going to tell my children to not turn them on?” Ms. Badia said. “If I have to spend all of my income in electricity, I’ll do it. I’m not going to let my children suffer.”