By Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio
Residents of a New York City public housing complex in Red Hook, Brooklyn, have been without heat for nine days now, with occasional shortages of hot water, as temperatures hit the low 20s this week.
Those living at 31, 37, and 39 Centre Mall in East Red Hook Houses—a public housing project— are struggling to get the city to respond to their complaints, many residents told NYCityLens. The 16 six-story brick buildings, less than ten blocks away from the F and G lines at the Smith-9th Street station, house more than 3,000 people. Juana Narvaez, 65, who has lived in the same apartment for 45 years, has been calling the NYCHA customer center since February 28th seeking to have the heat restored. But the cold in her apartment is still biting, she said.
“It feels like a freezer,” Narvaez said, sitting on the couch of the well-heated Red Hook senior community center, around the corner from her home, where she goes to escape the cold. “I bought a heater and I boil water in a pot when I’m home so it warms up the kitchen. But I don’t want to start a fire, so I have to turn these off eventually.”
Narvaez wears two pairs of leggings, pajamas, and extra blankets to get through the night. The hot water just started coming back to her flat on Wednesday, she said. Their plight is illustrative of many in problem-plagued New York City public housing projects. Almost 12,000 residents citywide had heat and/or hot water shortages over a 24-hour period on January 22nd, according to the Legal Aid Society, which provides legal services to low income individuals throughout New York. And as recently as February, 3,000 people in the Taft Houses in Harlem were also left without heat and hot water, NYCityLens reported.
There are legal guidelines that force the city to act with dispatch. If the problem is considered an emergency—lack of heating qualifies as a potential emergency under city rules—the city housing authority is required to inspect the apartment within 24 hours of filing a complaint over the phone. But such a rapid response rarely happens, said Genesis Aquino, tenant advocate for the non-profit Housing Court Answers.
“Public housing is so neglected by the city,” Aquino said in a telephone interview. “It’s been more than a week, and no one has done anything for Juana and the other tenants.”
Tenants waiting for repairs can go to their local housing court—in Red Hook called the Red Hook Community Justice Center—and file a Housing Part action, which brings a case against NYCHA. It assigns a date for an apartment inspection and a court case. At the court date, tenants detail the repairs they need to a NYCHA attorney.
When tenants visit housing court and start a claim together, the housing authority tends to respond faster to repair requests, Aquino said. Narvaez has been trying to do just that in order to speed up the process. She has been knocking on doors on all six floors of her building, trying to mobilize tenants to pressure the city to respond. Narvaez went to housing court early this week to file a complaint about the lack of heat, and NYCHA scheduled an initial inspection of her apartment for March 13th. NYCHA has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Her friend and neighbor Guadalupe Moreno, 65, is also suffering from the low temperatures in her apartment. They live in adjacent six-story buildings in the housing complex. Moreno is worried about how the cold may affect her health.
“My arthritis really acts up without heat,” she Moreno said as she walked out of the senior center, and towards her apartment building. “My hands get painfully cold; it’s difficult to deal with.”
In December of 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed a plan to overhaul the city housing authority, unveiling a plan for $24 billion in repairs that he said would “make an enormous difference in the lives of the 400,000 New Yorkers who call NYCHA home.”
But for now, both Narvaez and Moreno, along with thousands of other residents, sleep bundled up in the midst of winter with no heat in Red Hook public housing.