New York’s Public Housing May Be On The Verge Of A Climate Breakthrough

·7-min read

In 1993, as the new hit “Whoomp! There It Is” blared from boomboxes across the five boroughs, the New York City Housing Authority discovered a problem.

A highly efficient refrigerator, which required almost 30% less electricity to keep groceries cool, had just hit the market. But the appliance was too big for the nearly 200,000 government-controlled apartments, home to nearly as many people as Wyoming. 

So NYCHA and state energy officials put out a bid to manufacturers: Make an efficient fridge that can fit in an apartment, and we guarantee we’ll buy at least 20,000. The program turned out to be a huge success, and the winning manufacturer Maytag ultimately produced an appliance that transformed the market.

NYCHA wants to do that again. But this time, the appliance in question is geared around regulating the temperature of the entire home, not just the groceries. 

The housing authority announced this week it would move ahead with plans to develop and buy efficient, sleek new heat pumps for a pilot program.

The Midea America-designed heat pump is displayed in a promotional image from NYCHA. (Photo: NYCHA)
The Midea America-designed heat pump is displayed in a promotional image from NYCHA. (Photo: NYCHA)

The Midea America-designed heat pump is displayed in a promotional image from NYCHA. (Photo: NYCHA)

Heat pumps are essentially two-way air conditioners, and are widely seen as the most efficient and practical way to heat buildings without fossil fuels. As hardware improvements make heat pumps more versatile and dependable than ever before, policymakers are scrambling to roll them out as quickly as possible, especially as high fuel prices threaten to make keeping warm this winter expensive. But heat pumps remain costly to buy and install, and many on the market are designed for single-family houses, not compact apartments.

Once she sized up that challenge, Vlada Kenniff, NYCHA’s senior vice president of sustainability, said she immediately thought back to the refrigerator effort in the 1990s. 

“We actually found many of the people that worked on the original refrigerator program in the 1990s and really tried to understand how that came together,” she said in an interview this week. “Very early on in this project, we did talk to those program managers to understand what is the size of the golden carrot, how do you capture the attention of manufacturers so that it’s worth their while to open up their specs, and create a mass-scale product that didn’t exist before?”

Before putting out a bid last year, Kenniff spoke with other public housing authorities across the state and country, and got letters of support expressing an interest in buying whatever heat pumps came out of NYCHA’s proposal. It all came together quickly. 

On Tuesday, NYCHA and other state and city officials awarded $70 million through two seven-year contracts to two heat pump manufacturers, New Jersey-based Midea America and Gradien in California. Midea will make about 20,000 appliances; Gradien will produce the other 10,000.

The devices are compact and saddle the windowsill, meaning they won’t block half the window, as traditional air conditioners normally do. 

NYCHA plans to run a pilot program for a year before placing the full order for all 30,000. Assuming there are no major problems, Kenniff said installations should begin in 2025. 

“This taught us we can be an anchor market in many other innovations,” she said. “We’re hoping this is one of many. We got this one right.”

For many, a new method of heating could not come soon enough. Virtually all of NYCHA’s buildings are heated with radiators that connect to gas-fired Scotch marine boilers, with fuel oil as a backup. 

In the late 1910s, New York City underwent a heating revolution. As Spanish influenza raged, the dense, fast-growing immigrant hub designed its buildings’ radiator systems to get so hot, residents could keep windows open, providing air flow that could slow the pandemic’s spread.

In an undated archive photo, a white cat sits atop a radiator somewhere in New York City. (Photo: Karen Tweedy-Holmes via Getty Images)
In an undated archive photo, a white cat sits atop a radiator somewhere in New York City. (Photo: Karen Tweedy-Holmes via Getty Images)

In an undated archive photo, a white cat sits atop a radiator somewhere in New York City. (Photo: Karen Tweedy-Holmes via Getty Images)

The fuel used to make the steam has changed over the past century, but that system remains in much of the city’s older housing stock, even though it removes tenants’ control over when the heat goes on. 

Born in the 1930s out of the federal government’s response to the Great Depression, NYCHA struggled in recent three decades as Clinton-era deregulation sought to push the nation’s public housing tenants back into the private market. Mold, roaches, and lead paint have regularly sickened residents, and the radiators are frequently cold in frigid temperatures. Internal emails in 2015 revealed NYCHA had deliberately switched off heat during freezing winter nights, despite complaints. In one case The New York Times uncovered, NYCHA residents lived without any working heat for 10 years.

The neglect and mismanagement triggered a federal investigation, which resulted in a 2019 agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to fix a host of problems, including heating. 

Progress has been slow. In just one housing project in the Bronx in 2018, the heat went off 66 times during the colder months, and 50 more times over the next two years, NY1 reported. More than 7,000 NYCHA residents lost heat and hot water during a cold snap in 2021. 

“I put the oven on, pots of water,” Nichelle Thompson, 53, a grandmother in a Manhattan housing project, told the broadcaster Pix11 last year. “I stay up all night because of the fumes. It’s not good for us.”

Makeshift heating can quickly turn deadly. This past January, a space heater sparked a fire that killed 17 in a privately owned high-rise in the South Bronx.

Heat pumps may not be a panacea. Sean Brennan, a clean-energy engineer and senior associate at the consultancy Cadmus, told Grist earlier this year that if NYCHA didn’t pair its heat pumps with better insulation, the window units may not keep apartments as warm as the old radiators.

Kenniff said such concerns were why NYCHA would run tests before placing its full order for heat pumps. 

The Henry Rutgers Houses, a public housing development built and maintained by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), stand in in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. (Photo: Drew Angerer via Getty Images)
The Henry Rutgers Houses, a public housing development built and maintained by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), stand in in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. (Photo: Drew Angerer via Getty Images)

The Henry Rutgers Houses, a public housing development built and maintained by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), stand in in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. (Photo: Drew Angerer via Getty Images)

“We want to make sure our residents are comfortable and like them, and make sure they work with our window configurations and space constraints in the apartments,” she said. “We want to get through at least one heating season before we say all the boxes are checked.” 

The plan then, Kenniff said, would be to start buying and deploying more, and phasing out the gas- and oil-fired boiler systems that heat most NYCHA buildings. That will be a bigger step. NYCHA already has gas-fired generators at facilities that lost power during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. Kenniff said she hopes NYCHA can eventually replace those, too, with batteries and solar panels that can keep the lights and heat pumps on even when the power goes out. 

Electricity prices in New York City are far higher than the national average, due to the state’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels and a market system that has failed to provide adequate incentives for the infrastructure needed to keep pace with the metropolis’s growing demand. That has made electric heating unappealing to many homeowners, who prefer the gas furnaces or oil boilers to which they are accustomed. 

Government incentives at the state level, such as rebates as high as $10,000, are already starting to tip the scales in favor of installing heat pumps. If the massive climate spending deal Democrats struck last week becomes law, homeowners who buy a heat pump will be able to claim a new federal tax credit of up to $2,000. 

For NYCHA’s low-income residents, who don’t pay utility bills, that’s not really a problem. But if those incentives spur a boom in heat pump installations around New York, NYCHA residents could benefit. The agency said it plans to train and hire residents to help install heat pumps, giving the experience that could spawn new careers. 

“NYCHA is going through a transformation, and we want to get it right,” Kenniff said. “As a part of the process, we want to bring our residents the opportunities that ultimately will be created through that transformation, whether it’s training or job-career placement. I think that’s super key for everything.” 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story cited Sean Brennan using his previous job.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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