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Lafayette Gardens Residents Steamed About Heating Issues

Originally published in The New York Times “The Local”

By AN H. PHUNG
and CHANNON HODGE

December 10, 2010

After three frigid days of Thanksgiving week without heat, residents at Lafayette Gardens housing development welcomed news that their heating system was back online Friday, November 26.

But as winter’s chill has set in over the last week, the tenants of the New York City Housing Authority complex say their heating problems are far from fixed. The real problem, they fume, is that their heat has been spotty and weak since new boilers were installed in October in three of the seven buildings.

Roberta Ottley, 68, said her apartment, on the 20th floor, is so cold, especially at night, that she can’t function normally.

“Sometimes I’m so cramped in my hands and legs, so badly I can’t even move,” said Ms. Ottley. “My husband, he’s not well and he has to be under the covers.”

NYCHA has attempted a few solutions to the heating problems, but none have permanently fixed the problem, residents said at a contentious tenants association meeting with building management on Tuesday evening.

In an effort to modernize aging buildings and save on costs, NYCHA implemented a Computerized Heating Automated System as a part of a $2 billion plan in 2006. A plant in Long Island City monitors and controls heat in housing developments, and a 2-year-old customer contact center fields complaints and repair requests instead of on-site building managers. Part of the plan included the upgraded boilers that Lafayette Gardens received in October.

At Tuesday’s tenants association meeting, residents lobbed angry questions and complaints at NYCHA. Tyree Stanback, the president of the Resident Association of Lafayette Gardens said the problems that remain include the uneven distribution of heat throughout the buildings and an unresponsive call center.

“When you call the call center, you just get a person on the phone,” said Mr. Stanback. “There is no follow-up.”

Sheila Stainback, a spokeswoman for NYCHA, said in an emailed statement that the Authority is doing what it can to fix the heating, and that it is working on a five-year plan to address the maintenance and repair backlog.

“The Authority respects and understands our residents’ frustration over the current backlog of repair and maintenance work,” she wrote in the statement. “While the needs are great in most of NYCHA’s developments, the reality is that buildings that are 40-70-years old are aging structures that require a great deal of repair, for which the Authority receives inadequate funding. We will not allow that to deter us in seeking a solution.”

The Lafayette Gardens development was completed in 1962, according to NYCHA’s website. Before 2008, on-site managers handled maintenance issues and personally talked to residents.

Mr. Stanback said heat issues only get attention now when a large volume of complaints come in to the call center. This doesn’t happen often, he said, because the nature of the problem is that some residents have heat while others don’t. In addition, older residents are confused by the complaint system’s automation and are often afraid to make the call, said Faye S. Torres, a tenant who said she’s in her 60s. She said she often called on behalf of some of her older neighbors.

NYCHA’s call center problems have not been confined to heating issues, residents said. The Authority’s service on other maintenance issues is also poor and some requests have taken up to seven months to resolve, residents said at the meeting. When Mr. Stanback made a call to address an unrelated paint issue Wednesday morning, the customer service representative gave him a reference number for a repair review scheduled for July of 2011, he said.

On their Web site, NYCHA promises to react immediately to heat complaints. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, staff installed a new riser, a part intended to increase the heating system’s functionality in each apartment. On the same day, they also left thermometers in a handful of apartments that captured and recorded temperatures throughout the day. The results, in a two-inch thick report, showed that Mr. Stanback’s 17th floor apartment maintained a comfortable average of 71 degrees for seven days straight. Mr. Stanback said that range of readings can’t be right — some mornings his apartment has been freezing cold, he said, and when he has the stove on, it’s quite warm.

“There are times when I am cooking with the stove and the oven on, it’s still saying that it’s 70,” said Mr. Stanback. “I’m saying, it just can’t be. It’s not accurate.”

Fellow resident Deborah Henry, 52, who lives on the 18th floor, also says NYCHA’s thermometers are inaccurate.

“How is it 78 degrees when you got smoke coming out of people’s mouth?” said Ms. Henry. “Both heating pipes are cold, the apartment is cold and the reading says 78.”

After NYCHA’s attempts to repair the heating system, residents said on Tuesday, the lower floors still receive much more heat than the higher floors. Heat during the day is supposed to carry tenants through the night after the heat automatically shuts off at 10 p.m. But Mr. Stanback said that when his apartment has insufficient heat during the day, it can drop to below 50 degrees at night. Lafayette Gardens NYCHA Superintendent Raymond LaSalle said the heating system will kick back in if the temperature drops too much, but only if it detects that temperatures have fallen below 40 degrees. New York City health code says that NYCHA must maintain a 58-degree temperature at night.

Ms. Ottley, a tenant of 30 years, said she has been coping at night the same way many in the building do.

“I stay in the bed, and I got three heaters going on in my house with the stove going with water on it.” Ms. Ottley said. “That’s all I can do.”

A spokesman for the Fire Department of New York said the use of stoves or ovens for alternative heat can cause deadly fires.

“There’s no alternative means for the use of your stove or your range other than to cook with,” said the spokesman, James Z. Long. “There’s combustibles nearby, or there’s papers nearby, and then we have a fire.”

Mr. Stanback counseled residents to be careful, and to continue to call the call center. Still, Ms. Ottley remained pessimistic about her apartment’s heating problems being fixed any time soon.

“To me,” she said, “it’s not solving the problem, whatever they’re doing.”

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