Water Conservation Program Could Cause a Flood of New Problems for the City’s Housing Authority

Posted by Doug Turetsky, August 16, 2012

With the New York City Housing Authority facing a recent barrage of critical press, it’s not surprising that a seemingly small change in how the housing authority will be billed for water has been overlooked. But what may seem like a small drip of an issue now could open a floodgate later.

In an extension of its effort to encourage water conservation, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection last month put the New York City Housing Authority into a water conservation program that requires water meters to be installed at all of the housing authority’s 334 developments. If the housing authority cannot meet the requirements of the conservation program, it may instead be billed by water meters that track the amount of water used in a building. This could result in higher water and sewer bills for an agency already struggling with budget shortfalls and has trouble with the timely upkeep and repair of its properties.

Water already comes at no small cost for the housing authority. In 2011, the water bills for the housing authority’s developments totaled $149.9 million, according to IBO analyst Justin Bland. Under the new conservation program, the housing authority will pay about $160 million in 2013. The housing authority’s five-year operating plan shows a General Fund deficit of $61.3 million this year and $63.3 million for 2013 (about 3 percent of the roughly $2 billion budgets for public housing developments in both years).

The housing authority is not the only property owner being compelled to join the conservation program, but it is the largest. All of the city’s buildings were supposed to be metered and billed by water usage more than a decade ago. Launched in 1988 following a severe drought, the metering program aimed to be universal within 10 years. A decade after that deadline, as recounted in an October 2009 IBO Weblog Post, the program was well behind schedule, with nearly 50,000 water accounts still being billed on the frontage system—fees based on building size and the number of sinks, showers, tubs, and toilets.

As of July 1, the Department of Environmental Protection required that most of the remaining unmetered residential buildings in the city take a step towards the Universal Metering Program. The department has automatically enrolled the housing authority and other owners of properties with four or more units that have lagged behind in the city’s water metering efforts into its Multi-Family Conservation Program. The program sets a flat rate of $894.15 per apartment annually for water and sewer fees, about $60 higher than the average under the previous system. But paying the flat rate and staying in the conservation program is contingent upon installing water meters by January 2014 and “high-efficiency water-using filters” in 70 percent of a building’s apartments by June 2015.

Meeting these requirements may be a challenge for the housing authority, which is already awash in a backlog of repairs and delayed renovation projects. A June 2012 City Council Report for a budget hearing on the housing authority cited a 2011 backlog of nearly 300,000 work orders for about 17,900 apartments, 10 percent of the 179,000 units in public housing developments. And recent articles in the New York Daily News have chronicled the ongoing delays in major upgrade and renovation projects at housing authority developments. The need for such upgrades is likely to grow—1,400 of the 2,600 buildings in housing authority developments are at least 50 years old.

Many New Yorkers would no doubt agree that water conservation is an important public policy goal. But as it struggles to provide its 400,000 residents with safe and livable apartments, this may be a particularly difficult time for the housing authority to take on a new challenge.