S:US facilities director helps housing get greener in New York
Written by David Harry
Produced by Matthew Warner & Kirk Dyson
Bob Ortiz is not a native New Yorker —shout out to Brooklyn—and he’s spent most of his career helping Big Apple residents find places to call home.
These are more than homes, too. They’re facilities that Services for the UnderServed, better known by its S:US acronym, provides for people with developmental disabilities, and mental and behavioral health issues.
Ortiz has been with S:US for 26 years, working his way from a technician’s role to become director of facilities maintenance. He’s currently helping the organization meet its mission and comply with new city laws for more sustainable operations.
“I’m supporting the organization’s mission of social justice and helping those in need by providing facilities that are well taken care of and energy efficient,” Ortiz says. “My goal is to see the agency continue to flourish and maintain what they’ve done while taking it to the next level.”
Homes and help
Founded in 1978 as Seventh Day Adventist Charities, nonprofit S:US launched its first affordable housing program supporting people with behavioral health issues in 1981. The agency opened its first residence for adults with intellectual-development disabilities in the Bronx in 1982. The organization took its current name in 1989, and a year later, began providing housing in Brooklyn for men and women with AIDS.
S:US opened its first housing to support veterans with behavioral health challenges in 1995 and began providing housing for low-income clients without disabilities in 2002. Its first urban farm was launched in 2010 to provide food and employment opportunities. The organization currently has more than 70 gardens, including eight community farms, in four New York City boroughs that provided more than 91,00 pounds of food in 2022.
With a current annual budget of $244.4 million, S:US offers programs and services for veterans and people who are homeless, including treatment and recovery from substance use disorders, throughout New York City and on Long Island.
Ortiz and his team are responsible for maintaining more than 120 facilities ranging from S:US offices to shelters and group homes that house six people.
“Our group homes are very beautiful,” he says. “We make sure they’re just like homes we live in.”
However, Ortiz and his team are also working through a variety of new laws and regulations to make S:US homes and facilities more energy efficient. For instance, there’s Local Law 97 in New York City, which was enacted in 2019. The law mandates reducing carbon emissions from buildings of 25,000 square feet or more by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.
The law also requires building owners to start meeting reduction goals by 2024, including by shifting to more electric sources of power and heating as opposed to fossil fuels or natural gas. That’s required a lot of boiler and water tank replacements, Ortiz says.
While adding more energy efficient heating, cooling and water systems, Ortiz says he and his team have also been overseeing window replacements, especially at the group homes, that prevent heat loss and help cool the buildings.
The projects have benefits for S:US, too.
“By having more efficient buildings, we can save money which the organization can use elsewhere to support our mission,” Ortiz says.
Capping a career
He’s also guiding S:US’ 15-year updates on its property portfolio. While the work entails making the mandated changes for energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions, Ortiz and his team also assess the conditions of a building’s roof, flooring and paint, among other areas, to ensure clients are living safely and comfortably.
Ortiz is also looking beyond city and state laws in terms of green building and maintenance practices. He’s guiding efforts for S:US to become certified by the Urban Green Council in Green Professional Training, or GPRO. The certification requires 12-hour staff training in building and maintenance practices.
Ortiz says he was looking for new opportunities in New York City in the late 1990s. Since joining S:US, he’s also helped the organization build at least four new housing projects, but says he’s focused more on facilities maintenance and property management currently.
The new housing he helped build also helped redevelop underserved areas and vacant lots throughout the city, and Ortiz credits former S:US Chief Financial Officer Mike Whelan for his skill in collaborating with for-profit developers to help the nonprofit expand housing and services.
With retirement in his future, Ortiz says he’s enjoying helping S:US reach sustainable requirements and goals as a culmination of the skillset he’s applied to his work.
“These years at S:US availed me to opportunities to expand my skills and knowledge from electrical to masonry, affording me the role of supervising a diverse team of technicians,” Ortiz says. “It is also a good feeling to help those in need, and I am grateful to contribute to S:US’ growth and success in the community.”