The heat at Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses in the Bronx is supposed to be getting fixed after years of chronic outages.
Last week, it definitely wasn’t working for Yvette German.
She has lived in the public housing complex, in the same apartment, for 15 years. We met her on a brisk day last week.
“We got heat now, but they had to take my radiator out because of the explosion yesterday,” she told us outside of her apartment building.
Her apartment building is run by the city’s largest landlord — the New York City Housing Authority. Her radiator “exploded,” she said, just at the start of the heating season when those radiators should be flexing for the long winter ahead.
“Had they listened to me that wouldn’t have happened, because I have been reporting this,” German told NY1 last week. "I have so many ticket numbers reporting about this heat and the problems with the heaters.”
She showed us what her apartment looked like the day before. The radiator was leaking. Then, she said, it got much worse.
Her apartment filled with steam. Her hallway flooded.
This housing complex has been plagued with heating issues for years.
“We didn’t have heat for weeks, complaining about it, then the first day you get heat and the explosion and this happens,” German said. "This is ridiculous. It’s incompetence to me."
A spokesperson for the New York City Housing Authority told us German’s radiator issues were the result of water build up in the heating system in the building. They told us officials would be meeting with the contractor on site to discuss these issues.
We know the heat was shut off 50 times at Sotomayor Houses during the fall and winter of 2019 and 2020. The vast majority of that, NYCHA says, was for routine maintenance as it tries to get more reliable service to tenants.
The year before, it went out 66 times.
NYCHA officials say they are replacing the boiler room, the underground steam pipe distribution system, tank room equipment and installing new gas-fired water heaters. All of that work is supposed to keep tenants warm.
We are told that work will be done sometime in 2022.
Clearly it didn’t solve German’s problems last week.
“I was very, very nervous and scared yesterday,” German said. "It was not good.”
Not good indeed, although it used to be worse.
According to data provided to NY1 by the Legal Aid Society, the total number of heating outages for all of the New York City Housing Authority has declined over the last two years.
In 2017 and 2018 there were 1,776 outages. The following year there were 1,224. And it went down again last winter.
There were 819 outages. That’s some sort of progress.
In 2017 and 2018, outages lasted on average 30 long, frigid hours. The following year that went down to nine hours. And then this past winter it went down to less than eight hours.
Still, the Legal Aid Society is suing the authority to try to get some cash back for tenants who were without heat.
“It’s good that they are in better compliance with what the law requires, which is adequate heat and hot water throughout the whole year,” said Judith Goldiner, the attorney-in-charge of the Civil Law Reform Unit at the Legal Aid Society. "I am glad they are doing better and they need to do better still. What they really need is more money from the federal government.”
Even with improvements, thousands of residents went without heat for some time last winter.
Sixty-four percent of NYCHA developments experienced some sort of outage, less than half was for routine maintenance.
A report last week from the agency’s federal monitor raised concerns NYCHA was still not ready for this heat season.
It acknowledged the progress made during larger outages, but raised concerns about how NYCHA was addressing and tracking heating malfunctions in individual units, like in German’s apartment.
"NYCHA has not undertaken a concerted effort to better understand these smaller heating failures,” it said.
This failures were also experienced by the Quinones family.
They've lived in Sotomayor Houses for about two decades. They’ve been married for longer.
They met at a group for the disabled.
Debra Quinones has cerebral palsy. She recalls what it was like last winter.
“Sometimes we’ve had no heat in our room and we’d be freezing, putting double blankets on the bed,” Quinones said. "It would be so cold in here. And with me because I suffer from muscle spasms, I used to get sick a lot."
It’s hard to measure the progress for either of these families when the heat still gets shut off — even if it is less frequently.
“What would you say to NYCHA after all of this?” we asked German.
“Get on top of your thing,” she replied. "If someone is reporting something like this, I understand COVID and everything, but this is an emergency."