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Still simmering: Public housing residents will wait another two winters for permanent boilers

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Coney Island and Red Hook public housing residents will have to wait longer than expected before the city replaces temporary boilers that have been heating their homes since Hurricane Sandy, the agency’s head told this paper.

The New York City Housing Authority is still waiting on $3 billion the Federal Emergency Management Agency promised it more than a year ago, though Coney Island will be the first to feel the heat, because the authority got the feds to pre-approve construction plans, she said.

“As soon as we receive the federal funding, we will begin construction for the permanent replacement of those boilers,” said housing authority chief executive officer Shola Olatoye in a sit-down with Community News Group’s editors. “There’s an agreed list of scope items that they have pre-approved, and therefore they will advance money to us faster. Coney Island was the first one that we had agreed on with them.”

The authority has shelled out $3 million a month for temporary boilers in 16 Sandy-affected developments including the Carey Gardens and O’Dwyer Gardens developments in Coney Island and the borough’s largest, the Red Hook Houses, since late 2012, according authority heads’ testimony before Council last year.

The agency initially used coal-fired heaters rented from Southern states, but replaced them with gas-powered ones when the coke-burning boilers lacked the muscle to power through New York winters.

Housing officials testified the temporary boilers would be in place until the middle of 2016, but construction takes between 12 and 18 months, and the authority doesn’t expect federal money until next year — meaning it likely won’t complete installing permanent heaters until January 2017 at the earliest.

“Because this is government, it’s never quite easy,” Olatoye said.

When the reconstruction is done, developments will be more storm-resistant than before — with new security doors and cameras to boot, she said.

“We’re not just building them back where they were, all of the designs have raised boilers,” she said. “And it’s not just about the boilers. We’re putting in new security doors and wiring and CCTVs — really sealing the building from potential future weather events.”

Olatoye also spoke about a number of other issues facing Brookyln’s public housing residents, as well as what the underfunded authority is doing to catch up on $17 billion in backlogged repairs.

Co-habitation

Olatoye offered new details on the authority’s controversial plan to let developers build 500 market-rate and so-called “affordable” units on land at Boerum Hill’s Wyckoff Gardens houses — which she said are currently in need of $40 million in repairs.

The scheme had many residents fearful that they would eventually be pushed out when the authority notified them of it via robocall in September — Olatoye described their response as “dynamic” — and as a result, she said the authority has extended its “engagement” process with residents into the first quarter of 2016, which will ultimately determine where the new housing goes.

Olatoye said they are currently deciding between sites that currently house two parking garages and a fenced-off vacant lot on the corners of the property.

The authority will start accepting proposals from developers around July of next year and will pick one by the end of next year.

The building process, however, will take much longer, she said. The developer’s proposal will have to go through a lengthy public review process — which will go through the community board and Council — in addition to the authority’s own review.

It will be at least two years “before there is a shovel in the ground” Olatoye said, and potentially even longer if the review drags on.

Expect to see more housing properties across the city get similar treatment over the next decade. Olatoye said she understands why people are worried about losing open space on the properties, but it is a luxury the near-bankrupt agency can no longer afford.

“It was a luxury we had to have that kind of space,” she said. “We’re looking at seas of red in terms of how this place is operating.”

Still offline

The city still hasn’t selected a contractor to set up promised free wifi at the Red Hook Houses, Olatoye said — even though the high-speed internet is supposed to start rolling out next year.

The public housing buildings’ walls are “constructed like fortresses,” she said, so in-unit internet is tricky.

She tentatively described the plan — dictated and funded by the feds and Mayor DeBlasio, not the housing authority — as “an interesting thing,” but said she was more excited in seeing “low touch, easy to install” solutions like community group Red Hook Initiative’s grassroots network around the nabe and the city-wide citizen-run NYC Mesh network, which could be used to bring common areas online.

Cleaning up

Residents at some of the city’s most dangerous projects — including Brooklyn’s Bushwick, Boulevard, Ingersoll, and Tompkins houses — have offered positive feedback on the city’s multi-million-dollar scheme to crack down on crime in those buildings, Olatoye said, but admitted there is still a long way to go.

“When you talk to residents in those developments and they [say] there is literally light where there was none before, I think that means something,” she said.

Olatoye claimed there is only so much the authority can do as the landlord to reduce crime — it must ensure sure doors are fixed and lights are on, but the law enforcement must come up with a more comprehensive strategy for policing the properties, and residents also have to do their part, she said.

“People have to stop breaking things and throwing things out the window,” said Olatoye.

One problem is that the authority’s employees leave work at 4 pm when it is still light, she said. Another is that the federal government doesn’t provide cash to beef up security, so buildings have to rely on funds from Council members for beefed-up doors or new security cameras.

Where there is smoke

Olatoye says she broadly backs the goals of the feds’ recent proposal to ban smoking inside public housing buildings nation-wide, but it will only work if it comes with money and support to help residents quit and enforce the ban.

“What are you going to do, sniff people’s apartments? With no additional resources?” she said.

Olatoye said around 14 percent of public housing residents are smokers — around the same as the rest of the population — and that previous programs to make buildings smoke-free have worked best when they are driven by the residents themselves.

“They are successful when there is a peer to peer accountability structure where residents say, ‘we don’t want to have smoking in our buildings,’ ” she said.

Posted 12:00 am, December 10, 2015
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