The Ongoing Fight for Heat in NYCHA Housing

Jerry Jackson outside Vladeck Houses / Photo by Carson Kessler for NYCityLens

Jerry Jackson outside Vladeck Houses / Photo by Carson Kessler for NYCityLens

Each night before his head hits the pillow, Jerry Jackson layers on his grey fleece and down windbreaker over his pajamas. The 68-year-old’s peculiar bedtime routine began in October of 2019 when his apartment started to feel as if all the windows had been left open on a windy winter night.

“It’s a constant wave of cold coming at you,” said Jackson who lives in Vladeck House, a New York City Housing Authority building on the Lower East Side. “It’s like having wind chill factor in the apartments. That’s what it feels like.”

His recent prescriptions for Prednisone and Amoxicillin to relieve his worsening arthritis and to fight a respiratory infection reveal just how cold it’s been inside his home.

Two months after his heat problem began, Jackson filed a civil lawsuit against NYCHA. Today, he’s armed with a petition signed by hundreds of his fellow residents and nearly 50 photos documenting the fluctuating temperatures in the buildings. However, his next court date is not until March—long after the coldest weather has hit the city.

The buildings’ staff has not been helpful either. “One of the heat technicians said they want us to get used to it,” Jackson recalled. “Used to freezing!”

Heat loss in NYCHA buildings isn’t new. Nearly 87 percent of NYCHA’s 400,000 residents lost heat or hot water at some point throughout last winter. Since October 1, 2019 (the beginning of this year’s heat season), residents of NYCHA housing have submitted 130,000 individual heat and hot water complaints. NYCHA holds the title of the city’s worst landlord, according to Public Advocate Jumaane William’s annual worst landlord list.

In August of 2019, the Legal Aid Society also filed a lawsuit against NYCHA demanding rent abatements for residents like Jackson who experienced severe heat or hot water outages during the record-breaking cold winter of 2017-2018. According to Redmond Haskins, deputy communications director at the Legal Aid Society, the lawsuit is now class action-certified.

For the most part, Jackson is speaking out on his own because, as he puts it, many fellow residents are hesitant to speak up about the issue, even though they’ve signed his petition.

“Nobody wants to step up except for a few,” Jackson said. “A lot of people are intimidated to speak to housing. There are lots of people from other countries—countries where you aren’t encouraged to talk.”

Jackson has lived at Vladeck, a public housing development in Manhattan since 1995 and as a retired heat technician, Jackson knows the building—and its shortcomings—all too well.

Built in 1940, Vladeck House is one of the first public housing projects in the United States (First Houses, the very first public housing development, was built in Manhattan in 1935). The 20 six-story brick buildings are home to deteriorating radiators, poor insulation, and ancient boilers in need of a major overhaul. NYCHA’s physical conditions remain the worst in the city, according to the 2017 Housing and Vacancy Survey conducted by the Census Bureau.

Shortly after the cooler temperatures began last fall, Jackson found a flyer on his front door from NYCHA notifying residents that new “modernized, energy-efficient” heating controls had been installed in the development.

The new heating controls are a part of NYCHA’s Energy Performance Contracts with energy provider Ameresco. Temperature sensors were installed in select apartments on the 2nd and 6th floors. These sensors are designed to measure specific apartment temperature and then send a signal to the central heating plant to adjust the entire building’s temperature.

Vladeck Houses is made up of 20 six-story buildings on 13 acres / Photo by Carson Kessler for NYCItyLens

But while temperature readings of radiators, pipes, and internal walls completed by NYCHA contracted technicians show acceptable temperatures within legal parameters, the temperature of the external walls is ignored, according to Jackson. This is where the problem lies,  he says—poor insulation. Ameresco could not provide a comment due to a contractual obligation with NYCHA.

The buildings at Vladeck are composed of brick, wire mesh, then plaster. The floors are made of reinforced concrete and steel.

The new heating system works in cycles to “reduce overheating and save energy,” according to NYCHA. The heat comes on at 6:30 a.m. until 10:30 a.m., and once again from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The remaining 18 hours of the day the system relies on insulation to retain heat.

“Despite the temperature reading 72, the wall is like a magnet sucking it out,” said Jackson. “When this development was designed, it was designed with certain specifications. One thing they know was that there was no insulation so heat had to be supplied at all times. These buildings get very cold when the heat is not being supplied.”

With his unit’s temperatures falling well below the flyer’s promised “indoor temperatures of 72 to 74 degrees during the day and 69 to 71 degrees at night,” Jackson began to tirelessly document the temperature inconsistencies himself.

Armed with a laser thermometer, Jackson record temperatures across his entire unit at least twice a day. Every night and each morning, like clockwork: radiator, riser, pipe, exterior walls, ceiling, and floor.

One of Jackson's many temperature readings / Photo courtesy of Jerry Jackson

One of Jackson’s many temperature readings / Photo courtesy of Jerry Jackson

At 3 a.m. on January 30, the radiator temperature read 61.6 degrees. The forecast for that day was a low of 25 degrees.

Fortunately, this year, overall heat outages are down. However, Redmond Haskins, deputy communications director at the Legal Aid Society, is not convinced the NYCHA heat outage saga is completely over.

Aside from this year’s mild winter resulting in less strain put on heating systems, Haskins hypothesizes another reason for the recent downturn in outages: NYCHA’s definition of “outage” continues to be blurry.

“NYCHA has recently been playing semantics as to what constitutes an outage,” said Haskins. “They make it unclear.” Whether or not heat complaints are officially classified as an ‘outage’ depends on fuzzy stipulations which aren’t exactly elaborated upon. According to NYCHA’s service interruption definition, a heat outage means “no heat in an apartment line, stair hall, building, or development.”

Jackson even wrote a letter to Judge Daniele Chinea who is hearing the case. “We come here today for justice,” it reads. “They cannot control the heat with those sensors on the sixth and second floor apartments and think they could give proper heat without putting the tenants in danger. We are getting sick, unable to get up because we are exhausted due to the cold.”

Jackson’s hand-written petition is not permissible in court as evidence of the heating problem. He was told to return on March 9, 2020 with a legal representative as well as a licensed heat technician that can confirm the heating issue. NYCHA Attorney Harley Diamond did not return NYCityLens’ phone call.

“Everybody that works here and lives here knows that there’s a heating problem. That’s the talk of Vladek,” Jackson said, visibly frustrated and still wearing his fleece and down jacket. “This is the madness of what’s going on. We’re doing our best.”

The NYCHA Press Office would not provide a comment at this time.