What kind of system would let them freeze?

January 11, 2018

Ellie Hamrick reports from New York City on the scandalous failure of authorities at every level to protect the city's most vulnerable residents from extreme weather.

IMAGINE LIVING in a place where temperatures drop into the negatives--and not having any heat in your home.

That's exactly what some New Yorkers experienced last week when the "bomb cyclone" storm hit the East Coast. As temperatures dipped to dangerous levels during and afterward, residents of at least 18 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) complexes went without heat--and in some cases without hot water--across the city's five boroughs.

At the Woodside Houses in Queens, 3,000 residents in 20 buildings had no heat for at least three days, including the day the storm hit on Thursday.

"I've got every blanket I own, plus two sweatshirts and two t-shirts, and I'm still not warm," resident Juan Melendez told the New York Post. "It's fucking arctic in here...I can't feel my fingers and toes."

Without the heat that they are legally entitled to, many tenants turn to dangerous methods to warm up, such as using space heaters or turning on the oven and leaving the door open.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, space heaters are involved in 79 percent of deadly home fires. Leaving the oven on and the oven door open can cause fires or deadly carbon monoxide poisoning, and it also exposes residents--especially children and pets--to the risk of accidental burns.

The Woodside Houses in Queens went without heat during the bomb cyclone
The Woodside Houses in Queens went without heat during the bomb cyclone

Gonzalo Rivera, another resident of the Woodside Houses, said his family had to resort to leaving on the oven. "We don't like doing it, but it's the best we can do," he said.

In a city where landlords have virtually no obligation to maintain fire-safe buildings, the implications of buildings with no heat are especially terrifying.

Broken carbon monoxide and smoke detectors are disturbingly common in public housing projects, even though city workers are supposed to perform regular checks. NYCHA also has failed to perform lead safety checks, lying to the federal government and the public about it with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's knowledge.

Public housing buildings are old, flammable, deteriorating, and overcrowded, lacking even basic safety measures such as sprinkler systems.

This is simply a question of money. You can bet that Trump Tower residents stayed warm and cozy throughout the winter storm. But poor and working class New Yorkers are left to freeze, as landlords take their sweet time fixing old, broken heating systems.

Enormous cuts by Ben Carson's Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will dramatically exacerbate problems for the resource-starved NYCHA.

HUD currently provides most of the funding for NYC's public housing. But the Trump administration has proposed cutting up to $370 million from NYCHA in 2018. Those cuts would mean a 68 percent reduction of NYCHA's capital budget and a 13 percent reduction of its operating budget--and, of course, there would be no possibility of devoting additional resources to implementing desperately needed improvements.

This means more people will go without heat and hot water in dangerously cold weather. This means no safety upgrades. This means poor people will die.


CITY ADMINISTRATORS are rightly angered about the federal cuts to NYCHA. But the fragmenting of administrative responsibility between local and federal governments gives the ruling class a tremendous tool in driving through long-term, across-the-board cuts in the funding and provision of social services.

When local officials and political leaders point at the NYCHA, they can conveniently blame the federal government without having to address their own role in forcing public housing residents to live in miserable conditions.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Woodside Houses during the storm, and he commented on the heating outage during a subsequent, unrelated press conference. "The infrastructure of NYCHA is in very tough shape," he admitted. "It's sheerly a resources issue."

But de Blasio made no pledge to fix the resources issue. He has no plan for making public housing livable. Although his city budget for 2018 includes a moderate increase for NYCHA, it is barely a drop in the bucket compared to the agency's debt.

When it comes to NYCHA, the city under de Blasio has taken a decidedly neoliberal approach, bringing in private investors to manage and repair buildings, laying off large numbers of staff, and even adopting a plan to allow private developers to build mixed-income complexes on NYCHA land.

Moreover, the money that de Blasio budgets for NYCHA is set aside for exactly one thing: increased policing of public housing residents.

According to the City Council's budget report, even the $89 million budgeted for NYCHA "infrastructure improvements" is earmarked specifically for security cameras, "connection to the NYPD network," exterior lighting, "public safety analysis and programming" and other measures intended to make it easier for New York's finest to harass and arrest poor, Black and Brown people living in public housing.

Unsurprisingly, de Blasio also increased the NYPD's budget directly by $114 million. The department, which murdered eight Black men, two Latinx men and one white man in 2017, now enjoys an annual budget of $5.3 billion--one-and-a-half times larger than NYCHA's operating budget.

The cops' $5.3 billion would be more than enough to replace the temperamental old boilers that are leaving residents to freeze during bad storms--and go at least part of the way toward meeting NYCHA's $17 billion in unmet capital needs.

New York City is one of the richest cities in the world, home to millionaires and billionaires who could easily afford to ensure that public housing is livable.

New York officials like to brag that the city's income tax structure is more progressive than that of the U.S.--an abysmally low standard of comparison. But the regressive property tax structure cancels out a progressive income tax.

Doubling income taxes on those making over $598,000 per year would generate enough money to bring public housing up to safety standards in five years.


DONALD TRUMP wasn't interested in how the "bomb cyclone" storm would affect people living on the East Coast, even though it killed at least 18 people. Instead, he used the cold snap to further his agenda of rampant ecological destruction.

In response to the extreme cold in the days leading up to the bomb cyclone, the Stable-Genius-in-Chief tweeted, "In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year's Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming [sic] that our Country [sic], but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!"

This wasn't an isolated episode: Trump makes a habit of sending snarky tweets denying climate change whenever it's chilly out.

In reality, climate change causes both extreme heat and cold. And it likely made the bomb cyclone worse, according to meteorologist Jeff Masters:

We would expect it to be playing some role, since climate change is fundamentally affecting the atmosphere and changing the base state in which storms arise. So potentially you would have more moisture available to this storm, just because the oceans are hotter because of global warming--and that could potentially increase the impacts of a storm like this.

There's also some question about whether global warming might be affecting the jet stream, which is an important trigger for this storm. [Climate change] may be making the jet stream have more meanders, more of these large loops--these kinks--that can drive these sorts of storms.

Meanwhile, actual measures of climate change continue to outpace scientific predictions of the worst-case scenario, bringing more and more deadly weather events with it--and the effects can only grow more dire unless we make dramatic, revolutionary changes.

But not only is the ruling class uninterested in slowing or stopping climate change, it seems utterly unwilling to give working-class people the basic infrastructural support we will need to survive what's to come.

The Trump administration must reverse its cuts to NYCHA immediately. The city must prioritize the lives of public-housing tenants over a police department that's out to criminalize and kill them.

And we on the left must fight for these changes as if our lives depended on it--because they do.

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