Using Data for Good: Heat Seek NYC

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By Noelle Francois

Everyone knows what it feels like to be cold.

But imagine if that bone-chilling feeling stuck with you. Imagine if it followed you home and stayed with you all evening. It was there when you went to sleep, when you woke up, when you relaxed with your family, and when you got ready for work. All cold, all the time.

This nightmare is a reality for thousands of New Yorkers. In more than 37,000 buildings across all five boroughs, faulty boilers, service disruptions, and — too often — negligent landlords, make sufficient heat an amenity to be hoped for,rather than expected. As a result, thousands of NYC tenants jeopardize their health and well-being each winter, simply by living in their own homes.

Why does this happen? It’s important to note that many, if not most renters in NYC, do not have direct control over the heat in their buildings. NYC has a law requiring landlords to provide adequate heat in the wintertime, but enforcement is a challenge. Over 230,000 heating complaints were made to 311 last winter alone, and on particularly cold days, it was not unusual for 311 operators to receive four to five-thousand calls in a single day. The system to remedy heating outages is broken, and the cutthroat housing market in NYC only makes things worse. As gentrifiers move into historically low income neighborhoods, property taxes rise and landlords have a strong incentive to get rent-stabilized tenants to vacate their buildings (legally or illegally) to make room for more affluent renters. (See our coldmap for a detailed look at which neighborhoods boast the highest and lowest complaint counts)

Let’s start with the 311 complaint process. Once a tenant notices a problem with their heat and reports it to 311, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development notifies the building manager that an HPD inspector will be coming to the property within 72 hours. Often times, the manager remedies the situation immediately and the case is closed. But if the landlord is purposefully manipulating the heat, this notification from HPD provides the exact information he or she needs to avoid a fine. Bad acting landlords can simply turn up the heat for a few days and then turn it down again, beginning an endless cycle that leaves tenants with little recourse.

If the heat remains off and tenants have the wherewithal (a.k.a. the time and financial means) to continue fighting for improvements in their building, their next step is housing court, a notoriously overburdened wing of NYC’s civil court system. A mere 50 judges are tasked with handling an average of 300,000 cases each year (yes, that’s 6,000 cases per judge). Worse still, the majority of these cases pit landlords and their lawyers against tenants, 90% of whom represent themselves and have little experience navigating the complexities of court. Coupled with the fact that most tenants have only their own meticulously handwritten temperature logs to present as evidence, it quickly becomes obvious that tenants face an uphill battle. If their log is missing a date, or has even a single suspect hour, a defense attorney can dismantle a tenant’s case entirely.

At Heat Seek, we’ve created a tech tool to help tenants level the playing the field.

Our web-connected temperature sensors – essentially a thermometer connected to the internet – provide reliable, objective data to let everyone know when the indoor temperature dips below the legal limit. They automate the data collection process by taking a temperature reading once an hour, storing and analyzing the data on our servers, and calculating exactly when buildings are in violation of NYC housing code. Through our web app, tenants can log in to view their data and download heat logs. Our sensors are a simple, inexpensive solution to a widespread problem.

At Heat Seek, we partner with community organizations like Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and the Urban Justice Center to ensure that our sensors reach the tenants who need them most. These organizations are already doing tenant organizing around housing issues, and have an established presence in the communities in which they work. We rely on our community partners to tell us where to place sensors for maximum impact.

We also have a unique partnership with HPD, the city agency tasked with deploying inspectors to investigate heating code violations. By sharing our data with HPD inspectors, we’re illuminating trends in heating outages and allowing them to more efficiently conduct inspections, at the times when buildings are most likely to be in violation.

Our data can also help level the playing field in housing court. By providing impartial temperature logs, we allow tenants and landlords to settle disputes with facts – not technicalities – making the entire process more efficient.

Finally, we have good reason to believe that the presence of Heat Seek sensors will raise the standard of accountability among landlords. Skimping on heat and hot water will no longer be an option for landlords looking to save a quick buck or harass tenants into leaving rent regulated units.

Ours is just one example of the myriad ways civic technologists are working to make NYC a better, more equitable place to live. New York City’s heating crisis is a solvable problem. Our technology is smart, affordable, and serves a community with a real need. Through your support, we’re helping tenants keep the heat on this winter.

Noelle Francois is the Executive Director of Heat Seek NYC. She holds a BA in sociology from the College of William and Mary, and an MPA in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy from NYU Wagner. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Email: noelle@heatseeknyc.com Twitter: @heatseeknyc Website: www.heatseeknyc.com

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