Public housing residents say being in a room where an outside party regulates the heat is like sitting behind the steering wheel while someone else drives the car.
"This is not like it used to be," said 75-year-old Sally Harper, who has lived in her Boynton Terrace apartment for more than a decade. "We used to have heat and didn't have to worry about nobody turning things down. Now we do."
Harper is among dozens of Boynton Terrace seniors who have received new thermostats intended to prevent public housing residents from turning their heat higher than 75 degrees. Now, as the city experiences some of its coldest weather in years, the Chattanooga Housing Authority is temporarily supplying space heaters after receiving complaints that some apartments aren't warm enough.
CHA Executive Director Betsy McCright and Mike Sabin, the agency's director of low-income public housing, did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.
But CHA has said it is installing regulators that will prevent public housing residents from setting thermostats higher than 75 degrees in the winter and lower than 70 in the summer. The program is expected to help save CHA $100,000 a year and is being carried out under the terms of an energy performance contract with Honeywell. By spring the thermostats will be in nine of the housing authority's 16 public housing sites.
CHA officials have said the money saved will be used for repairs and equipment replacements.
In addition to installing some new thermostats, maintenance workers put screws in some heat and air-conditioning units to govern how far up or down a resident can move the control knob. Timed heating systems were installed in some bathrooms, requiring residents to choose to have the bathroom heated for as little as two minutes but no longer than 15 minutes.
"That's not going to work," said 57-year-old Carolyn Jackson, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Boynton.
"We're elderly people," said Jackson. "Some of them are on canes and walkers and sometimes it takes longer than 15 minutes in the bathroom."
And she said putting screws in to block the control knob for heat causes cool air to come out of the unit instead of warm.
Barbara Pickett, 75, was among the residents who got a temporary heater this month.
She said she has no complaints about heat regulation until it comes to the bathroom.
"Go sit on the commode," she said. "You won't sit in there long. It gets really cold."
Pickett, who uses a wheelchair, said she has no heat at all in the bathroom and has to rely on warmth coming from her bedroom when she showers.
Harper, who recently had knee surgery, said she's had thermostat controls in her room for about a week.
The heat is supposed to shut off when the room reaches a toasty 75 degrees. But in the middle of the night when outside temperatures drop into the teens, it never feels like 75 degrees, she said. The heat shuts off anyway and no amount of blankets can keep her warm.
"It's cold," said Harper.
The heating unit is working against winter wind that blows so hard through the windows that they rattle. A row of windows lines the wall of Harper's bottom-floor efficiency apartment.
She said her body racks with pain when the cold air hits her, and pain pills bring little relief.
CHA is saving money, said Harper.
"But they're not trying to save old people's lives."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at email@example.com or 423-757-6431.