Checking on Landlords When the Heat is Too Low

New York City

New York City

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Heat Seek records indoor temperatures when renters say their heat is out or insufficient.

New York City imposes strict requirements on landlords about the minimum heat that must be provided to tenants during the coldest months. Still, inadequate heat remains the top 311 complaint the city receives during winter.

A nonprofit startup is now working with advocates to gather evidence in cases where renters say they aren’t getting the required heat in their apartments. Founded in 2014, Heat Seek uses temperature sensors that read the inside temperature of an apartment and sends the readings to a database to help renters prove at any point in the day their landlords are depriving them of heat.

Of the approximately 200,000 heating complaints New York City’s 311 call center receives during the winter, only 5,000 to 7,000 are deemed violations, said Noelle Francois, executive director of Heat Seek.

“Either we have this rampant problem of tenants calling and complaining about nothing, or something is preventing [Housing and Preservation Development] from catching these violations,” Francois said.

A 311 complaint results in HPD sending out housing inspectors within one to three days, but by then temperatures may have changed. More troublesome, inspectors notify landlords when they’re on their way over, so a landlord not following temperature requirements has advance notice to restore heat to acceptable levels.

The city’s rules say that between Oct. 1 and May 31, building owners must keep the inside temperature at a minimum of 68 degrees Fahrenheit during the day when the outside temperature falls below 55 degrees. At night, the temperature must be at least 62 degrees.

New York is a city of renters, Francois said, and victims of heating abuse often find themselves at the intersection of poverty and gentrification. Even long-term tenants can fall victim if a landlord decides to gentrify an apartment by driving out the old occupants so they can bring in higher-paying ones.

If HPD can’t prove anything, landlords don’t get caught.

“Tenants we know often get stuck in this cycle,” Francois said.

Heat Seek works with tenant organizers, housing justice organizations and legal service providers that are often funded by the city to do anti-displacement or harassment work. Those groups connect with Heat Seek when heating issues arise and they need sensors installed, Francois said.

Heat Seek is currently a finalist in the Civic I/O pitch competition taking place at the SXSW Conference later this month, in which a panel of mayors and industry experts awards $10,000 to one winning idea. The winner will also present at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting in June in Honolulu.

“The fact that it’s for mayors was really appealing to us because our whole sphere of work is in cities and trying to make this one city service—upholding the housing code—function better,” Francois said.

Before expanding to other interested cities, Heat Seek made sure its hardware and software worked, relationships with local tenant organizations and government officials were established in New York City, and temperature data was being used to drive change, she added.

Different cities have different housing justice landscapes, and mayors of cities in the Southwest may be more concerned with overheating in the summer. Most people who die indoors from heatstroke in New York City don’t realize it’s happening, Francois said, and others may be too infirm to do anything about it.

Heat Seek can alert residents or their caregivers they should relocate to a cooling center via text message.

“I can totally see us branching into summertime temperature monitoring as well,” Francois said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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