The coils are a big problem. “It’s a heat exchange,” Joe Militano explains. “It goes inside of the tank and is probably one of our oldest pieces of equipment.” Militano is the director of technical services at the New York City Housing Authority, working at NYCHA’s sprawling satellite office on 49th Avenue, right by the Hunterspoint Avenue LIRR stop. Coil assemblies like the one he’s discussing, a dozen feet or more of pipe that curl back on themselves and are mounted in a heavy baseplate, are components of hundreds of apartment-house boilers, supplying heat and hot water to thousands of public-housing tenants. A lot of them are really old, and nobody sells replacement parts.
“As soon as the actual asset — the elevator or the boiler or heating system — becomes obsolete, and past its useful life, it’s impossible,” said Keith Grossman, senior vice-president of operations support services. A set of coils going out of commission can and will disable a building’s heating system for days. The same is true of elevator-control mechanisms and all sorts of other aging components. Six hundred thousand residents depend on elevators that are old enough to have ferried Biggie Smalls and heating systems that kept kids warm as their fathers stormed the beaches of Normandy.
They all ought to be replaced, of course, but that means finding $40 billion for a proper systemwide renovation. (The estimate was $13 billion less than a decade ago, illustrating just how much the disinvestment compounds as the buildings age.) There have undoubtedly been some significant management issues, but the original sin here is simple underfunding. The cavalry is not coming over the horizon; the Feds effectively have, to paraphrase a famous headline, told NYCHA to drop dead. So the agency has responded with a secret weapon that lurks in the basement level of this century-old Long Island City building. It’s huge, a former Bloomingdale’s warehouse of 650,000 square feet spread over seven stories. When the agency can’t buy parts, it makes them here, in its shops, often from scratch.
At the center is a CNC machine, a computerized behemoth that does much of the work of setup and cutting that was traditionally carried out by skilled machinists. (It’s huge: NYCHA staff had to knock down part of a wall to bring it inside.) In a matter of minutes, it can drill through solid steel plates in the precise configuration to hold the copper tubes that form the basis of building heating systems. Between the CNC machine, a high-tech lathe, and old-fashioned bench tools, NYCHA can not only make the baseplates but shape and set the coils that actually heat the water, re-groove the giant spools that hold elevator wires, and even experiment with making non-NYCHA goodies when other agencies need them. Javier Almodovar, senior director of heating management services, holds up a prototype of a fire-hydrant wrench that his team is now manufacturing. “A hot-ticket item,” he says. When it needs small elevator parts, like relays and operators, the agency will refurbish or remanufacture them instead of making them new.
The array of obsolete technologies that NYCHA has to keep going is made stark on the second floor of the building, where banks of elevator controls are set up. Bristling with knobs and wires and flashing lights, they regulate every part of an elevator’s functioning: Specific logic circuits will prevent doors from opening if certain conditions are met, controllers will adjust its speed, and so on. The newer controls, with all their functions integrated into a motherboard-like controller card, are maybe a quarter the size of the 1990s models nearby. “It’s important to keep training folks on this type of equipment, because it’s still out there, and it’s not going away anytime soon. We would like some of it to, but it’s just not, so we have to maintain it. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it can’t run well,” says Richard Solivan, senior director of elevator services.
Next to all the hardware, incongruously, is a row of classroom chairs facing a whiteboard. It’s part of the teaching station, where elevator mechanics get classes on this generation-spanning array of systems. Ron Hall, who became a trainer here after years as a supervisor for the elevator teams, explained that the machines allow instructors to create specific problems that student mechanics then have to fix. He stands by a control panel manufactured in 1993, eight feet tall and imposing, and points out a series of plastic knobs bearing a dizzying array of blue labels. “These are plug-in relays. Each one has its own purpose,” he says; they control the doors or stop the car if a weight limit is exceeded.
Joey Koch, NYCHA’s chief of staff who previously served in Grossman’s role, said that the agency has been trying to make or refurbish components for discontinued systems for as long as it’s had discontinued systems, but the choice to buy the pricey CNC machine came three years ago, after a 2019 elevator outage at the Throggs Neck Houses in the Bronx lasted for months. Apart from general infrastructural issues including a leaking roof, the outage “had to do with this part being needed. And we had a machine and we had machinists, and they were making it, but it took days,” she said. Now specific custom parts can be made much faster, sometimes in minutes. The heating-coil baseplates take a couple of hours. The stakes are quite a bit higher than a name on a leaderboard; the efficiency with which these tasks can be completed might make the difference between an elderly resident being able to leave their building on a given day or not.
The people who oversee these processes — including Richard, Joe, Ron, and Javier, all powerfully built with easygoing demeanors and an affinity for short-sleeve button-down shirts — all have long experience in the agency. They oversee a handful of machinists, including one specialist running the CNC machine, and about 400 elevator technicians and helpers deployed around the city. Despite the headwinds, the executives approach their work with a mix of pride and a sense of duty. NYCHA residents are going to fault them for breakdowns that they can do little about, and every minute that a system isn’t working is laid at their feet. They and their bosses also have to contend with shifting political management and legislative scrutiny. Meanwhile, they’ll keep making and maintaining the parts.
As impressive as the manufacturing and refurbishing processes are, the ultimate goal is to make most of this shop obsolete. “In the private sector, you redo your elevators every 15 or 20 years,” said Koch. Till then, even successful repairs can lead directly to other problems. Koch gives the example of the Berry Houses on Staten Island: “The 60-year-old boiler operates wonderfully, but the steam line that takes the heat to the apartments, also 60 years old, is falling apart and has never been replaced. You can have a brand new boiler, and you now have more steam going through the pipes — the pipes start disintegrating,” she said. “Until you’re able to have the dollars to comprehensively review the building and the systems, you’re gonna have problems.”
Among the programs attempting to fix this are the Permanent Affordability Commitment Together (PACT) program, which transfers some NYCHA buildings to a semi-privatized ownership structure, and the newly created Housing Preservation Trust, which will put certain developments under the control of a public corporation, letting residents themselves opt in. Both are efforts to secure Section 8 funding for capital improvements, with the probably correct understanding that federal Section 9 funding for public housing has dried up for good.
How well those arrangements can work in the long run remains to be seen, but it is Koch’s hope that they can finally free up the capital to do real overhauls. Until then, the shops will stay busy. At some point, though, even refurbishing parts and doing routine maintenance is likely to yield diminishing returns. “If we can no longer do what we do, and the elevator goes out in a senior building? That’s catastrophic,” said Koch. What happens if a system goes definitively kaput, beyond the critical-care abilities of this team? There’s a moment of silence before Koch answers, “I don’t think we know the answer to that. Nor do we want to find out.”