A Midea America heat pump is shown in a promotional photo from NYCHA.

New York’s public housing may be on the verge of a climate breakthrough

In 1993, the song “Whoomp! The New York City Housing Authority, which smashed boom boxes across the five boroughs, discovered a problem.

A high-efficiency refrigerator has just entered the market that requires about 30% less electricity to keep groceries cold. But the device was too big for the roughly 200,000 government-controlled apartments that are home to as many people as Wyoming.

So New York energy officials and state energy officials made an offer to manufacturers: Make an efficient refrigerator that can fit in an apartment, and we guarantee we’ll buy at least 20,000. The program was a huge success, and the winning manufacturer Maytag eventually produced a device changed the market.

NYCHA wants to do it again. But this time, the device in question is geared towards regulating the temperature of the entire house, not just the groceries.

The Housing Authority announced this week that it will press ahead with plans to develop and purchase new, efficient and elegant heat pumps for a pilot program.

A Midea America heat pump is shown in a promotional photo from 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 reliable than ever, policymakers are scrambling to roll them out ASAP, especially as high fuel prices threaten to make warmth this winter costly. But heat pumps remain expensive to buy and install, and many on the market are designed for single-family homes, not compact apartments.

Once she got over that challenge, Vlada Kenev, NYCHA’s Senior Vice President of Sustainability, said she immediately thought of refrigerator efforts in the 1990s.

“We actually found a lot of people who worked on the original refrigerator show in the ’90s and really tried to understand how that came together,” she said in an interview this week. “Very early on in this project, we talked to these program managers to understand how big the golden carrot is, and how you can get the manufacturers’ attention so it’s worth their time to open up their specifications and create a mass-product that didn’t exist before?”

Before bidding last yearKennef has spoken with other public housing agencies across the state and country, and received letters of support expressing interest in purchasing any heat pumps that came out of the NYCHA 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 makers, New Jersey-based Media America and California-based Gradian. Midea will produce about 20 thousand devices; The Gradian would produce the other ten thousand.

The devices are compact and mounted on the windowsill, which means that they will not block half the window, as conventional air conditioners do.

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

“This taught us that we can be a major market in many other innovations,” she said. “We hope this is one of many. We got this right.”

For many, a new heating method cannot come soon. Almost all NYCHA buildings are heated with radiators that connect to Scotch marine gas-fired boilers, with fuel oil as a back-up.

In the late 2000s, New York City underwent a heating revolution. With the Spanish flu outbreak, the dense and rapidly growing immigrant center designed its buildings’ coolant systems to get too hot, and residents could keep windows open, providing airflow that could slow the spread of the pandemic.

In an undated archive photo, a white cat sits on top of a radiator somewhere in New York City.
In an undated archive photo, a white cat sits on top of a radiator somewhere in New York City.

Karen Tweedy Holmes via Getty Images

The fuel used to make steam has changed over the past century, but this system is still present in many of the city’s older residences, although it removes tenants’ control when the heat continues.

Born in the 1930s as a result of the federal government’s response to the Great Depression, NYCHA has struggled for the last three decades as Clinton-era deregulation has sought to bring the nation’s public housing tenants back into the private market. Mold, cockroaches, and lead paint regularly make residents sick, and radiators are often cool in frigid temperatures. Internal emails in 2015 open NYCHA deliberately turned off the heat during frigid winter nights, despite complaints. In one case revealed by the New York Times, New Yorkers lived without working heat for 10 years.

Negligence and mismanagement led to a federal investigation that resulted in a 2019 agreement With the Department of Housing and Urban Development to fix a range of problems, including heating.

Progress was slow. In just one housing development in the Bronx in 2018, the heat went out 66 times during the colder months, and 50 again over the next two years, New York 1 mentioned. More than 7,000 New Yorkers lost heat and hot water during the cold snap of 2021.

“I turned on the oven and the pots of water,” 53-year-old Nickel Thompson, a grandmother in a Manhattan housing project, told the broadcaster. Pix 11 last year. “I stay up all night because of the fumes. This is not good for us.”

Temporary heating can quickly turn deadly. Last January, a space heater ignited a fire that killed 17 people in a privately owned high-rise building in the South Bronx.

Heat pumps may not be a panacea. Sean Brennan, Director of Research at the nonprofit Urban Green Council on Sustainable Building, Greste said Earlier this year, if NYCHA didn’t pair its heat pumps with better insulation, window units might not keep apartments as warm as old radiators.

Such concerns are the reason NYCHA conducts the tests before submitting its full order for heat pumps, Kennef said.

The Henry Rutgers Homes, a public housing development built and maintained by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The Henry Rutgers Homes, a public housing development built and maintained by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), is located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

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 the space constraints of the apartments,” she said. “We want to get through at least one warm season before we say all the boxes have been checked.”

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

Electricity prices in New York City are well above the national average, due to the state’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels and a market system that has failed to provide sufficient incentives for the infrastructure needed to keep pace with the city’s growing demand. This has made electric heating unattractive to many homeowners who prefer the gas ovens or oil boilers they are accustomed to.

Statewide government incentives, such as rebates of up to $10,000, are starting to tip the scales in favor of installing heat pumps. If Democrats last week’s massive climate spending deal becomes law, homeowners buying a heat pump will be able to claim a new federal tax credit of up to $2,000.

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

“NYCHA is going through a transformation, and we want to get it right,” Kennef said. As part of this process, we want to provide our residents with the opportunities that will eventually be created through this transformation, whether that be training or a job placement. I think that’s the super key to everything.”

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