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NYCHA Tenants Left Out in the Cold on Heating Repairs, Stringer Charges

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Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Two years after more than 300,000 public housing tenants shivered through boiler outages during a particularly brutal winter, NYCHA still doesn’t have an adequate system for tracking heat failures in public housing, the city comptroller charged Monday.

While NYCHA has greatly improved its ability to respond to building-wide outages since that disastrous winter, the authority still does not have a way to track the resolution of heating complaints that are apartment-specific, an audit by Comptroller Scott Stringer found.

That means the authority can’t tell how long it takes to fix heat problems in individual apartments. Data compiled by Stringer’s auditors show that just over half  — 51% — of the 167,000 no-heat complaints called into NYCHA in the frigid winter of 2017-2018 were unit-specific, not system-wide outages.

“The tools used by NYCHA’s central management to oversee and track heating issues are inefficient and ineffective,” the auditors wrote. “As a result, NYCHA is significantly hindered in its ability to manage and resolve heating issues.”

Stringer launched the audit in April 2018 as the winter closed out, subpoenaing thousands of documents related to NYCHA’s consistent inability to handle repeat heat system failures that swept across its 320 developments as temperatures plunged into the single digits for much of that January and February.

‘Just Apologize’

The failure prompted a wave of criticism from tenants and politicians and resulted in a heated City Council hearing that spring in which Council members took turns bashing then-NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye, and Speaker Corey Johnson demanded, “Just apologize!”

Stringer’s team wound up examining records of two subsequent winters — and found that even after all the outcry, NYCHA still has no way to verify the accuracy of repair reports staff enters into the authority’s work- ticket database. 

The NYCHA tech team, for instance, performs an annual “batch closing” of heat-related work orders that are listed as still open after a substantial period of time. These batch closings could result “in the closing of work orders where required work was never performed.”

NYCHA also does not have a complete inventory of the boilers providing heat in its 174,000 apartments. When he launched the audit in April 2018, Stringer requested a list of all of NYCHA’s boilers. Five months later, NYCHA produced a list of 1,955 boilers system wide, conceding that no such accounting existed when Stringer made his request.

However, Stringer’s auditors say the list that was provided was incomplete. The auditors discovered 13 boilers not on the list. In many cases, the list contained only bare-bones information about the boilers, nearly half of which were so old they were past their useful life. 

In three cases, NYCHA couldn’t say when the boilers were installed.

As THE CITY reported in November, hundreds of new boilers slated to help heat the apartments housing some of NYCHA’s 400,000 tenants aren’t slated to come on line until 2023 — more than seven years after Gov. Andrew Cuomo began setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars for the improvements.

Changing Story

When Stringer subpoenaed NYCHA’s boiler records, the agency initially produced a list of 1,234 boilers that had been inspected the year before the disastrous 2017-2018 winter, indicating nearly 700 hadn’t been checked that year.

When Stringer asked about the uninspected boilers, NYCHA produced a new list claiming the number of inspected boilers was actually 1,506.

“NYCHA’s failure to provide an explanation (about the change) significantly limits the degree of reliance we can place on any of its submissions,” the auditors wrote.

Responding to the audit, NYCHA rejected five of Stringer’s eight recommendations, insisting that its internal work order system could track no-heat repairs to individual apartments, and stating that most of the audit’s findings had already been addressed following the winter of 2017-2018.

“The report’s recommendations do not address the many changes that NYCHA has made in addressing heating challenges, including improvements made in collaboration with and approval of the independent federal monitor,” NYCHA Chairperson Gregory Russ wrote in a March 17 letter to Stringer attached to the report.

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