As New Yorkers’ complaints over a lack of heat and hot water this winter reach a 14-year high, supply chain interruptions that have delayed boiler replacements have made fixing broken heating systems a monthslong ordeal.

Since the city’s “heat season” began on Oct. 1, city residents have logged over 100,000 complaints about a lack of heat or hot water in their buildings, according to 311 records.

In over 1,000 city buildings, tenants have lived amid chronic heat outages for years, logging multiple 311 heat complaints each year between 2017 and 2021, according to a report released earlier this month by Comptroller Brad Lander.

In other buildings, recent boiler breakdowns have resulted in frequent heat and hot water shutoffs this winter, according to tenants and building owners. Many require full boiler replacements as the city's housing stock continues to age, but finding one quickly has become a nearly impossible task due to delays in the supply chain for boiler parts and replacements, according to housing experts, boiler suppliers, plumbers and building owners.

Even short-term solutions, like renting a boiler that gets hooked up to a building from a container on the street, are in short supply, according to two boiler repair and rental businesses Gothamist spoke to.

“We get calls every day – two to three calls a day, at least – of people looking for temporary boilers,” said Frank Mima, general manager of boiler rentals at the Boileroom Group based in Long Island. “The demand is very high, the problem is there's no inventory.”

All 70 of the company’s rental boilers have been rented out across the New York City region since earlier this winter, Mima said, costing anywhere between $8,000 and $15,000 per month. In past years, most rentals only lasted one or two weeks during repairs, he said. But this winter, many building owners plan to rent boilers for the entire season, he said, as a holdover while they continue to wait months for their orders to arrive.

Now, when a building owner comes looking for a rental to replace their broken or malfunctioning boiler, Mima has little to offer. He tells them to scour the internet. It takes “getting lucky,” he said, to secure a heating fix.

Frequent, recurring heat outages

In early October, the boiler stopped working in Mira Fox’s prewar apartment in Crown Heights. As outside temperatures dropped, Fox’s radiators remained cold through the night, and no hot water came through the pipes when she tried to shower.

Fox reported the issue to her building’s management company, Judith Drive Management, and the heat soon came back on, she said. But it was only a temporary fix. In the following weeks, the heat would go out sporadically. Fox kept reporting the issue to management, but the problems persisted through December.

“I start to feel like I really need to schedule my days around when something's working,” Fox said in an interview. “If I have to go to an event and I need to look nice, I need to make sure to find a window when the hot water's on. The second I see it's on, I better stop whatever I'm doing.”

After months with intermittent heat and frequent complaints to management, Fox learned that building management was looking for a new boiler, but its search had come up empty.

“[We] have been informed there are currently none available in the tristate area,” said a Dec. 7 email from Judith Drive Management to building tenants about the boiler replacement. “While we continue to source a replacement, there may unfortunately be more instances when the heat and hot water turn off.”

Sourcing boiler parts and full system replacements has been a challenge across the country since the pandemic stalled the supply chain, according to Brett Thomason, political director at Steamfitters Local 638, a union that represents boiler plumbers. Parts for cast-iron boilers, which serve older, smaller buildings and are common among New York’s older residential buildings, are particularly hard to come by.

“Almost all the work we do, there’s been supply chain issues in terms of materials,” Thomason said. “Things that were scheduled are not being done, or are happening months after they were slated.”

Partially driving the problem is the city’s aging housing stock, which makes getting repairs to the heating system expensive and delays fixes, according to Mark Willis, a senior policy fellow at NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

The basic, underlying issue you’re looking at is we have very old housing stock, and that housing stock needs to be maintained all the time,” Willis said. “For smaller owners, they don’t have that capital just sitting in the bank, waiting to be spent to replace boilers or other building systems that are well past their useful life.”

The cost of a residential boiler replacement varies greatly depending on a building’s size, age and heating system, spanning from a few thousand dollars for a single family home up to $50,000 for a multi-unit walk-up apartment building, according to Salvatore Vigilante, owner of Vigilante Plumbing in Brooklyn.

After the outages at Fox’s building were reported, Judith Drive Management contracted a specialist plumber to conduct extensive boiler repairs, which have brought the system back online for now, said David Cohen, one of the company’s principals. According to Fox, however, the radiators and shower in her apartment are still occasionally cold.

Across the city, thousands of other tenants have been stuck in a similar cold reality in recent years, according to the comptroller’s report.

While almost 80% of heat and hot water complaints come from buildings without chronic heating issues – with fewer than five complaints made over one heating season – other buildings face persistent heating issues. During the five years included in the comptroller’s report, there were on average over 3,500 buildings where tenants complained about a lack of heat or hot water over 10 times.

But heat outages don’t affect all New Yorkers equally. The top five community districts where residents reported heat outages to 311 during the five-year period of the comptroller report were districts in which the vast majority of residents are people of color, including in northern Manhattan, the northwest Bronx, and eastern Brooklyn. And though the report does not include heat and hot water complaints from NYCHA residents, heat outages at public housing residences spiked last year, records show.

The good news is, for most people, their landlord wants to get the heat on,” Lander said last week in an interview on WNYC. But for those in buildings with persistent heat issues, the problem can remain ongoing without any intervention from the city for years.

Over 25% of buildings with chronic heat outages during the report’s period had no related intervention from the city – no violation issued, no litigation pursued, no repair contracted or conducted by HPD, and no enrollment in HPD’s Heat Sensor monitoring program.

“Clearly there's an issue there,” Lander said. “We don't have a strategic approach that makes sure we focus enforcement on buildings that have been problems again and again and again.”

William Fowler, a spokesperson for the city’s Housing Preservation and Development agency, said that "HPD responds to all complaints and takes appropriate action when a violation is found."

The boiler in the basement of a Windsor Terrace co-op building has been shut off all winter due to disrepair, with a replacement on backorder for at least three months.

Supply chain delays slow repairs

Even building owners who are able to secure funding to make the extensive repairs to the boilers have fallen prey to supply chain issues, extending the time residents are without heat.

At a seven-building co-op in Windsor Terrace, two boilers that supply heat to six of the buildings have been shut off due to disrepair since the beginning of the winter, according to board member Robin Feld.

After securing a private loan to pay for replacements, the co-op board put in an order for two new boilers in October, more than a year after the first boiler went out. But both of those boilers were backordered for at least three months.

“We knew there was going to be quite a delay even once we got the money,” Feld said.

“We have a severe supply chain issue,” said Councilmember Alexa Aviles, whose district includes Windsor Terrace, at a council hearing with HPD last month where she raised the co-op’s difficulties. “Three months without boilers is not OK, and is an emergency situation.”

At the hearing, AnnMarie Santiago, HPD's deputy commissioner for enforcement and neighborhood services, said the department investigates tenant complaints, and can step in and make repairs in some circumstances. Santiago urged tenants to file complaints with 311 and HPD suggests owners supply heat through alternative means, like using a rental boiler or installing electric baseboard heating.

Tenants without heat often turn to electric space heaters, according to the comptroller’s report, which have come under increased scrutiny in the past year since a faulty electric heater sparked the Twin Parks fire in the Bronx last January, which killed 17 people. It was the city's deadliest fire in recent history and just one of over 100 fires caused by an electric heater between 2017 and 2021, according to the comptroller’s report.

“They're really dangerous,” Lander said of electric heaters during the interview on WNYC. “That's why the right answer is to get the heat turned up – as it is in the vast majority of buildings, and it can be in the rest of them as well.”

This story was updated to include a comment from a spokesperson for the city's Housing Preservation and Development agency.