On the Hot Seat Over Boilers

Shirley Aikens, 60, president of the Carey Gardens Residents Association, testifies to the City Council about the use of temporary boilers in NYCHA public housing. (Caroline Anderson/NY City Lens)

Shirley Aikens, 60, president of the Carey Gardens Residents Association, testifies to the City Council about the use of temporary boilers in NYCHA public housing. (Caroline Anderson/NY City Lens)

The City Council and Brooklyn public housing residents raked officials from the New York City Housing Authority over the coals Thursday for the chronic failure of temporary boilers installed after Hurricane Sandy in Red Hook and Coney Island. Although the residents have already lived for 16 months with the malfunctioning boilers, authority officials said it would take another two years before permanent boilers could be installed.


That did not go over well.


Instead of City Hall, the meeting took place at the Carey Gardens Community Center on Coney Island—where it was easier for some 80 residents to attend. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito put in an appearance, too. And the meeting lasted more than four hours, as council members, led by the chair of the Committee on Public Housing, Ritchie Torres, and the chair of the Committee on Recovery and Resilience, Mark Treyger, grilled representatives of the Authority. Residents from Coney Island and Red Hook testified, sometimes emotionally. Some were angry, and a couple of residents teared up while speaking about the conditions of their apartments.


“We are told not to use stoves, but we got to keep our babies warm, keep our children warm,” said Shirley Aikens, 60, the president of the Carey Gardens Residents Association.  When their apartments were not too cold, some residents said, they are sometimes too hot. Aikens said that on one occasion, the temperature rose to 100 degrees in her apartment.


“I complained to NYCHA,” Aikens said, her long braids pulled back from her face. “They said, ‘If we turn it down, you complain, if we turn it up, you complain.’ Yes, we are going to complain. I want hot water when I take a shower.”


Besides regularly breaking down, residents said the temporary boilers caused fumes and noise, and sometimes caught fire, as in at least one case in Red Hook.


Raymond Ribeiro, executive vice president for capital projects at the Housing Authority, insisted that the boilers were safe and functioning reasonably well. He said that it’s not uncommon for boilers to go out, but with permanent boilers, there is a backup system to make sure service is not disrupted.


And the permanent boilers? Ribeiro said that two years and $1.8 billion were required to design, test, and implement new permanent boilers, which the Authority plans to elevate to prevent the kind of flood damage that took the old boilers out of commission.


In the meantime, the current oil-burning temporary boilers will be replaced with burners that use natural gas this spring. Ribeiro said these will be more environmentally friendly and cost residents less. He also said that this plan was contingent on funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and insurance, which the city Housing Authority has not yet received.


The Council suggested that the Authority plans were out of touch with the realities of the residents. “Any thought you all put in if a baby freezes to death, if a senior freezes to death, and the fact that people could die while they’re waiting for service?” asked Councilmember Laurie Cumbo.


Ribeiro maintained his cool through most of the grilling, in spite of the pointed questions and accusations.


Much was made of the fact that on at least one of the temporary boilers was a sticker saying it couldn’t be operated below 40 degrees.


“Is that a safe and sound practice to heat developments?” asked Councilmember Treyger. Ribeiro insisted that it was. “We specifically monitor the emissions in the enclosures,” he said.


In response to questions from Treyger, Ribeiro said that the Housing Authority had notified the mobile boiler providers that they had broken down, but that they had not gotten any refunds.


He said they were paying one million dollars a month for the mobile boilers, prompting cries and gasps from the audience.


“Quiet down, please,” said a security guard, wearing a blue blazer with a patch that said “Council.”


After the audience settled, Treyger resumed his questioning.


“You see nothing wrong with that?” he asked.


Ribeiro replied that boilers often break down, and that the failure rate is not unusual. Normally, he pointed out, the boilers have a backup unit, which is not the case with the temporary units.


Later, Councilmember Cumbo brought up the issue again.


“Are there mobile boiler systems that operate in 40 degrees? Why didn’t we get those?”


“We took every mobile boiler we could get our hands on after Sandy,” said Ribeiro.

Even after most of the media and attendees had left, the City Council members continued to listen and respond to testimonies from residents.


“I would like to note, while we are directing a lot of anger to NYCHA, we should be directing anger to the federal government and to the state government, which has contributed nothing,” said Torres, 26, a first-term councilmember who grew up in public housing in the Bronx. “I encourage you to call your state representatives and ask, why are public housing residents invisible to you?”