89 NYCHA Buildings Earned an A for Energy Efficiency — and Even Its Managers Didn’t Believe It
Last week, the Housing Authority pulled down data on its website after THE CITY found nearly every one of its 2,100 buildings really scored grades of D and F.
This article was originally published on by THE CITY
In early 2021, as required by law, the New York City Housing Authority checked out the energy efficiency of its buildings and discovered that a significant number of addresses in their deteriorating portfolio had somehow scored high grades, seemingly indicating that they were extremely energy efficient.
Dozens of public housing properties earned an A grade, the highest score possible.
Even NYCHA managers didn’t believe it.
“Given the general condition of NYCHA’s buildings, I’m surprised any locations can receive a score of A, the best possible score,” an internal NYCHA memo states.
It further noted that in the first round of testing, there were only 26 locations with an A, while in the second round performed just six weeks later, there were suddenly 89.
“All locations receiving an A should receive additional scrutiny,” the memo states. “THIS IS NOT GOOD.”
Despite their doubts, NYCHA last year decided to post this data on the authority’s website anyway.
While private building owners must physically post their efficiency grades at entryways under what’s known as Local Law 33, NYCHA’s disclosure to its 400,000 tenants and the general public occurs only online.
To anyone who looked, NYCHA had claimed that nearly 40 percent of the hundreds of properties they checked in late 2020 and early 2021 had achieved a passing grade of C or better, including the 89 with the alleged top grade of A.
That was, until last week.
After the City Council’s oversight and investigations committee pointed out the data on NYCHA’s website, THE CITY confronted the housing authority with an analysis of records kept by the Department of Buildings — the agency that actually determines the scores based on energy consumption information supplied by building owners.
The analysis revealed an entirely different story: Just four of NYCHA’s 2,100 buildings had actually received passing grades.
In fact, THE CITY found that only a single building within one NYCHA development in Brownsville, Brooklyn had earned a stellar grade of A. Not 89 buildings, as NYCHA had proclaimed on its site.
After THE CITY pointed this out, NYCHA acknowledged that the scores it had been presenting to the public for months were completely erroneous. The authority removed the data from the site, but has yet to replace it with the accurate — and far less impressive — scores uncovered by THE CITY.
Responding by email to THE CITY’s questions about this, NYCHA blamed the problem on former employees and could not explain what happened.
“The staff members who created this document and drafted the notes are no longer at NYCHA,” a spokesperson wrote. “Therefore, we are not able to knowledgeably discuss the process for the analysis.”
Councilmember Gale Brewer, chair of the oversight and investigations committee, said “It doesn’t bode well for making the buildings energy efficient if you can’t even get [the scores] right on your website.”
Brewer acknowledged that, given NYCHA’s struggles just to make its aging buildings habitable, its ability to also comply with mandated greenhouse gas reductions is “fraught with challenges.”
“But I also think you have to be honest with people,” Brewer said. “I’m glad that NYCHA came clean with you.”
The unreliable nature of NYCHA’s erroneous data underscores the difficulty the city’s biggest landlord has experienced in doing what all landlords in the city must do: quantify the energy efficiency of its properties as a first step in an ambitious campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the years ahead.
Under Local Law 97, owners of most buildings of more than 25,000 square feet must demonstrate they have taken aggressive steps to meet energy efficiency standards and reduce greenhouse gas emissions starting next year. The goal is to cut emissions 40 percent by 2030, then by 80 percent as of 2050.
NYCHA’s impact on the city’s ability to trim emissions is significant. Its 175 million square feet of residential property make up 12% of all rental apartments in the city and, according to NYCHA’s own estimates, account for 2.5% of the city’s total building greenhouse gas emissions.
NYCHA, too, is required to reach the Local Law 97 goals, but under slightly different terms.
Private sector property owners face hefty fines if they don’t comply, and by 2024, in just nine months, owners must demonstrate they’re taking real steps to hit the goals.
While the mandate to cut emissions applies “to all buildings owned or operated by NYCHA regardless of size,” the housing authority is exempt from fines. If NYCHA can’t meet the established goals, the mayor’s Office of Sustainability can step in and “recommend remedial actions,” according to NYCHA’s Sustainability Agenda.
But to date, NYCHA does not yet have a clear picture of the energy efficiency of its 2,100 buildings.
The data it put up significantly understated the number of buildings where they did not have enough data to take a measure of a building’s energy efficiency — a condition that earns a building a grade of F.
NYCHA’s data showed nine properties rated F for calendar year 2020. THE CITY found 228 had earned an F in 2020, and 304 in 2021.
Asked about this, NYCHA officials acknowledge that they have not been able to collect sufficient data to quantify the scope of their portfolio’s energy inefficiencies because they don’t have the resources to properly gather the information.
“We know the buildings are inefficient,” Vlada Kenniff, senior vice president for sustainability told THE CITY, noting that the authority is seeking funding to hire “energy managers” to collect and analyze the required information on all its buildings.
“It is helpful to know the energy efficiency of buildings,” she said, but noted that, “For us it is expensive to do the letter grades. We have to hire people.”
80% by 2050
But even with accurate data, reaching Local Law 97’s goals will be particularly daunting for NYCHA, given that most of its 177,000 apartments date back to the 1950s and 1960s and rely on archaic steam plant systems powered by natural gas and oil.
NYCHA’s own sustainability reports acknowledge that the current systems are “inefficient and costly to maintain.” More than 1,300 NYCHA boilers across the city are powered by fossil fuels.
Outlining their agenda, NYCHA determined that they can continue to rely on fossil fuels for heat and hot water and reach the mandated 40% greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2030 if they make these systems more efficient.
But this business-as-usual approach won’t work to reach the required 80% reduction by 2050. To hit that goal, NYCHA admitted, they’ll have to obtain full electrification for much of their portfolio and severely curtail their reliance on the fossil fuels now in use.
NYCHA insists the fact that only a tiny number of its 2,100 buildings are energy efficient as measured by Local Law 33 is “not necessarily correlated” to the authority’s ability to meet Local Law 97’s goals.
NYCHA is now focused on replacing the current heat and hot water systems and replacing windows to make the buildings more efficient and ultimately end the use of fossil fuels entirely.
The need to swap out the aging systems for new, more efficient heat and hot water systems will also improve lives for tenants. The heat systems, in particular, have year after year been prone to outages that subject tenants to frigid conditions.
“Most of these systems are at the end of their useful lives,” NYCHA stated. “When these systems fail, they create acute quality of life conditions for residents.”
THE CITY’s analysis of NYCHA’s efficiency scores makes clear that nearly every single public housing building is nowhere near energy efficient.
In the data they posted online, NYCHA reported scores for 387 properties listed by address, while the data DOB reviewed applied to 427 properties listed by building block and lot, a different measure of the same properties.
Under NYCHA’s data, 149 of the 387 properties got passing grades of A, B or C. But under DOB data, only four of 427 made the grade.
After THE CITY asked NYCHA for an explanation about the nature of data on their site, they theorized that the ex-staffers had “endeavored to analyze developments” instead of looking at specific building blocks and lots (BBL), the far more accurate method DOB uses.
This, NYCHA acknowledged, was a mistake.
At the Van Dyke Houses in Brownsville, for example, DOB’s data showed one building at 376 Blake Avenue earned a coveted A grade, with a perfect score of 100. Meanwhile other Van Dyke properties next door on Mother Gaston Boulevard and Dumont Avenue scored D grades, marking them as extremely inefficient.
Bringing electric heat pump systems to these and other NYCHA houses, as the authority has long talked about, would help meet the goal of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050.
The authority estimates it will need to install 156,000 electric-powered heat pumps in 52,000 apartments over the next 15 to 20 years to make that benchmark. But to date, NYCHA has yet to find a heat pump system that works.
The various heat pump technologies they tested on a pilot basis were “intrusive for occupied apartments and three- to four-times costlier than existing fossil-fuel options,” NYCHA stated in an emailed response to THE CITY’s questions.
They’re hoping a $70 million partnership with the New York Power Authority to develop better heat pump technology will do the trick. The plan, announced in August by Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul, calls for two firms, Midea America and Gradient, to install and test 60 heat pumps in 24 units at the Woodside Houses in Queens starting this fall. If the devices work out, they hope to deploy 30,000 units by 2030.
But that still would transform just a small fraction of NYCHA’s portfolio. And when NYCHA sought contractors for a 2020 plan called RetrofitNY project to upgrade a fossil-fuel powered system at a development, the lowest bid came in at $29 million — way over NYCHA’s $16.3 million budget estimate. The job is now being redesigned and will be put back up for bid “in the coming weeks,” NYCHA wrote to THE CITY.
To date work on electrifying NYCHA properties has begun at only two buildings in the Bronx and one in Manhattan. The development that’s closest to going all-electric is at 1700 Hoe Avenue where the heat system is now fully electric but the hot water system isn’t expected to switch over until November.
They have had more success upgrading aging boilers with more efficient models, moving to replace 346 boilers at 76 developments through 2026 with $3.4 billion in city, state and federal funds allocated just for that purpose.
The authority has also had success making buildings more energy efficient under the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program in which they continue to own the properties but turn management over to the private sector.
To date 15,000 apartments have been placed under RAD. All received energy efficiency upgrades, including window and roof replacements that better insulate buildings, systems that make electricity and water usage more efficient, and boiler upgrades.
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