In Public Housing, Temporary Boilers Are Here To Stay (For A While)

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A mobile boiler unit supplies hot water and heat to almost two thousand residents of Hammel Houses

Catherine Darby, an elderly resident of the Hammel Houses in the Rockaways, said when she turns on the “warm” tap in her bathroom, cold water comes out about half the time.

To draw a bath, she has to boil water on her stove. The next step is particularly tricky, because Darby uses a walker. She places the pot of hot water on the seat of the walker, then maneuvers it from the kitchen, down the hall, to the bathroom.

“That’s what I do," Darby said. "It’s a lot, but if you want to wash up, you don’t want to be smelling. You got to wash,”

Like many residents, Darby believes the temporary mobile boiler that now serves Hammel is unreliable. The structure looks jerry-rigged, consisting of a large plywood house and a truck with Texas plates, which emits clouds of steam. Weeds are growing beneath the wheels.

Maintenance workers' phone numbers are written on the door of the mobile boiler.

Across the public housing system, not one of the 23 temporary mobile boilers installed after Sandy has had a permanent replacement. The slow pace of progress is a growing cause of concern to residents and their advocates.

“I think that the city dropped the ball on this one,” said Lucy Newman, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society.

Newman faults the New York City Housing Authority for not devising a better solution before the winter, or at least offering a plan for public review. More than 10,000 people in public housing still depend on mobile boilers, long after many private homeowners replaced their boilers.

Cecil House, general manager for the housing authority, said it is not fair to compare public and private housing. Family homes use  mass-produced boilers. Big housing projects need to have them custom-built on-site.

“It’s a much more complicated engineering effort,” House said.

But the Authority is not even close to taking that step: it is still studying the boiler rooms that flooded, and considering how best to protect new equipment. The below-ground boiler room at the Hammel Houses could be flood-proofed, or a new, elevated boiler room may be built. Either way, a solution is a long way off.

“I would not expect that the solution to be in place for this heating season, and it may not be in place for the next heating season,” House said. “But it would clearly be in place after that.”  

House said the temporary boilers are actually performing very well—better, in some cases, than the old boilers. He added that anyone who loses heat or hot water should call in their complaint right away. He said the agency will make them a priority.