City Limits examined 311 data related to heat and hot water complaints over the past three years, and found the highest number were in areas populated by communities of color and lower-income individuals. They include Washington Heights, followed by several neighborhoods in The Bronx, including the community district where the deadly Twin Parks fire occurred. 

Adi Talwar

Experts say regularly recording temperatures can help tenants show proof of insufficient heat.

For the past three winters, Brooklyn resident Heather Humphries has struggled to stay warm in her Stuyvesant Heights apartment, bundling up with multiple layers of socks, down-filled blankets and outerwear. Much of her week is spent calling her landlord to complain about conditions or accepting city inspectors into the apartment she’s lived in for the last decade to document them. When all else fails, Humphries retreats to her bedroom and huddles under the covers.

“When the warmest place in your apartment is underneath the covers of your bed, what ends up happening is you get depressed and you sleep,” she said.

Changes to the building’s boiler system three years ago has led to temperature issues in her apartment and that of her rent-stabilized neighbor, Humphries said. A stop work order by the Department of Buildings (DOB) led to her heat being cut off completely for four months in the winter of 2019/2020, and since then, she said, the heat swings from too much to too little.

Every seven to 10 days, the heating units overheat and shut off completely, said Humphries, who along with her neighbor with another tenant in her building is suing her landlord.

“We’ll get barely any heat, and then if it’s cold outside, when it’s below 30, forget about it,” she said. In previous years, she used space heaters to warm the living room and bathroom, where temperatures drop the lowest, but this year, lack of work and tight finances due to lost work have made her more reliant on filing complaints with 311 or the landlord directly.

Data from 311 shows that so far this heat season, there were five no-heat complaints from Humphries’ building, with one resulting in a violation. The building currently has 70 open violations, according to NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) data, and 21 are designated as class C—the most severe type. None are related to heat. Her landlords, Alexander Horn and Sam Kooris, are currently under a consent order to provide heat and hot water at her building within the guidelines under the law, provide access to the building’s boiler area and remove any device that is capable of causing the heating system to be inoperable.

In December, Horn and Kooris were also involved in a $214,000 settlement with HPD related to seven other buildings in Brooklyn and Queens—not including the one where Humphries resides—where city investigators previously found hundreds of violations. “The taskforce uncovered a pattern of substantial building neglect, vacant apartments, unsafe conditions and inadequate heat and hot water among other issues,” the HPD release noted. The landlords declined a request to comment.

Problems like Humphries’ are not unique among tenants experiencing inadequate heat in New York City. In some cases, advocates say, unscrupulous landlords withhold heat as a way to save money on utility costs, or to harass tenants, particularly those in rent-stabilized units, into moving out.

Increased attention has been on this issue since January, when a fire in The Bronx that killed 17 residents, including eight children, was found to be linked to a space heater. The tragedy prompted an outcry by tenant organizers and lawyers calling for greater enforcement around building violations, and inspired lawmakers to sponsor legislation mandating safety features of space heaters.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re in Gramercy Park paying $5,000, or if you’re in Mott Haven and you’re in a rent-stabilized apartment and you pay $700,” said housing attorney Runa Rajagopal of The Bronx Defenders, a provider that aids tenants in housing court under the city’s Right to Counsel initiative. “Everyone is entitled to safe, quality, standard housing, and we’re going to make sure there’s a transparent, accessible, accountable process around that for every New Yorker.”

From October through May—known as “heat season”—New York City law requires owners of residential buildings to maintain indoor temperatures of at least 68 degrees when it is colder than 55 degrees outside from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and at least 62 degrees, regardless of outdoor temperature, overnight.

But the process for holding landlords accountable for withholding heat is onerous, advocates say, and it can be difficult to prove when a property owner is failing to maintain the temperatures required by city law. Tenants are often left to find workarounds, including space heaters, which not only may pose a safety risk but can lead to increased electricity bills as utility rates continue to spike.

The burden is heavier for tenants already struggling with finances, working multiple jobs, managing childcare and navigating language barriers, notes Rajagopal. “That’s all part of the larger context in terms of feeling like they can get help, or they’re entitled to get help,” she said.

City Limits examined 311 data related to heat and hot water complaints over the past three years, and found the highest number were in areas populated by communities of color and lower-income individuals. They include Washington Heights, followed by several neighborhoods in The Bronx, including the community district where the deadly Twin Parks fire occurred. 

Data pulled from between the start and end of each heat season since 2019 and through Feb. 15 of this year.

While there were thousands of complaints—many of them in the same buildings and in the same neighborhoods, year after year—only a portion resulted in violations by the agency who oversees housing issues, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

“HPD takes every heat and hot water complaint seriously and issues violations when services are inadequate,” said HPD spokesperson Jeremy House in a written statement to City Limits. “Building owners have a legal responsibility to maintain indoor temperatures, and if they fail to uphold it, HPD will take the appropriate action to restore service.”

Between the start and end of each heat season since 2019 and through Feb. 15 of this year, 311 has logged nearly 500,000 complaints related to inadequate heat or hot water.

By contrast, the agency issued 31,699 heat and hot water violations between the start of fiscal year 2019 and the end of the most recent fiscal year in July, according to the Mayor’s Management Report.

Part of this discrepancy can be explained by duplicate complaints—for instance, if multiple tenants call 311 on the same day or if a tenant calls several times a day, according to HPD.

But an audit of the agency by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli in September 2020 examined HPD’s response to heat and hot water complaints from July 2017 through June 2019 and found multiple lapses in enforcement, including delays in inspections and misclassification of valid complaints as duplicates.

“HPD has incorrectly identified hundreds, possibly thousands, of heat and hot water complaints as duplicates and failed to respond to those complaints,” the report said. It also noted the agency did not have an established time frame in which to respond to heat and hot water complaints, which the comptroller’s report deemed “immediately hazardous conditions” that should be corrected within 24 hours.

“Inspections occurring two days or longer after a complaint is filed allow landlords time to fix the condition—in some cases only temporarily—in anticipation of an inspection, as indicated by some tenants,” the report said.

During heat season, HPD considers a complaint related to inadequate heat or hot water an emergency warranting an immediate response. The agency says it responds to complaints by communicating with the building owner or manager—and potentially the complaining tenant—to learn if the problem has been resolved, and by sending inspectors to buildings to do temperature readings. 

In the winter of 2019-2020, the time frame of complaint to inspector visit was 2.1 days, according to the agency, which also noted it was a day faster than the previous winter. Data since 2020 was not readily available, according to HPD. 

Violations related to heat and hot water are considered the most severe and must be fixed within 24 hours, according to HPD. 

“I have to say, HPD works really hard on this stuff,” said Zac Hale, a housing lawyer with Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A—the firm representing Humphries in her case. “The city sends HPD people for these heat complaints really quickly, usually.” 

In some cases, the agency may send a contractor to fix the problem at the landlord’s expense through its Emergency Repair Program. Landlords issued a violation may also be fined up to $500 a day for a first offense or $1,000 a day for a repeated offense until the heat is restored. 

The agency’s goal is to close those complaints—including obtaining proof that the issue has been resolved—within 20 days. But during the 2020-2021 heat season, the agency reported to the mayor’s office that it closed all emergency complaints, which include heat and hot water, within an average of 13 days, despite added challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The agency reassigned some of its inspectors to COVID-19 duties like inspecting businesses operating in COVID-19 clusters, including restaurants with indoor dining,” the Mayor’s Management Report says. “HPD was also unable to make additional hires during the pandemic that would have allowed it to maintain its average response times from previous years. Despite this, 75 percent of all emergency complaints were closed within 12 days of receipt, higher than the previous four fiscal years.”

Hard to document 

It can be hard to prove that a landlord isn’t providing the proper amount of heat, and getting such issues resolved can be a headache for tenants. 

If someone suspects the heat in their unit or entire building is too low, HPD first recommends they contact the landlord or building management directly to address the problem. The city’s aging buildings and outdated boiler systems can sometimes lead to inadequate heat, despite the best efforts of a property owner. 

Trying to resolve the issue with the super or building management before filing a complaint can be faster and less stressful for both the landlord and the tenant, according to Ann Korchak, a landlord and representative of Small Property Owners of New York. “HPD is there to push the landlord to do the right thing, if they're not doing the right thing,” she said. “If you're paying your rent and you have a nice relationship with people, don't pick up 311. Give your landlord a shot to do right by you.”

If attempts to contact the super, building manager or landlord are not successful, the tenant should next file a 311 complaint, HPD suggests. The complaint will prompt the agency to send an investigator to the building to take a temperature reading and notify the building owner if they are found in violation. 

“That’s the reason HPD is there,” said Korchak. “For those cases when the owner is not doing right.”

When heat problems persist, the next step may be filing a claim in court, requiring tenants to document repeated heat violations and requests for them to be corrected.

Hale, of Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation,  recommends tenants purchase a room thermometer and take photos of it when the apartment falls below the legally-mandated temperature. Sending an email to the landlord also helps to provide a written record of complaints.

Hale also recommends that tenants speak to their neighbors to find out if there are shared concerns, and find strength in numbers. 

“I think it's really important that people in the community recognize that we live around other people who are in a shared building, and in an older building, all of your heat is on the same line,” he said. “So if you're having an issue, your neighbor may be as well.”

Still, there are added challenges in capturing evidence of a continued inadequate heat supply. A tenant must be home to open the door for an inspector to monitor temperatures in their unit—a complicating factor if they’re unable to work from home or take time off, especially when it’s unclear when the inspector will arrive.

If a tenant has been using supplemental heat, like space heaters or ovens, that may also warm the unit to an acceptable temperature before an inspector’s visit, which would lead to no violation being filed—even if the landlord has been providing an inadequate supply of heat, as required by law.

“I don't know very many people [who] don't have space heaters, to be honest,” said housing attorney Rajagopal of The Bronx Defenders.  

If a heat complaint does not result in a violation, it can complicate a tenant’s legal case, especially for tenants whose landlords are using inadequate heat as a tactic to pressure them to move, Hale explained. 

“There are some laws that require you to have repeated HPD violations to get a harassment finding against the landlord when there's a pattern,” he said. “So, getting that violation is important.”  

One nonprofit organization is working to help residents with heat complaints track and record their indoor temperatures. Heat Seek NYC provides digital thermometers to residents who are  having continuous problems with inadequate heat. The devices collect temperatures every hour and send them to a central database, via Wi-Fi or a cellular sim card for residents without reliable internet connection. The organization’s algorithm is designed to match the data with outdoor temperatures to record when the heat law would be in effect. 

Heat Seek was conceptualized in 2014 by two students of the Flatiron School, which focuses on software engineering and product design. One of them, Tristan Siegel, had heard about the common complaints of tenants who were trying to monitor their heat with written temperature logs from his mother, who was a social worker in the city. 

With his classmate William Jeffries, the pair developed a sensor that could capture the temperature throughout the day and log it digitally. They deployed their prototype to an apartment in the South Bronx, where they recorded temperatures as low as 53 degrees.

When the current executive director, Noelle Francois, joined Heat Seek, she helped the team to partner with tenant organizing groups and housing attorneys to place the sensors in areas with sustained heat problems so they could target their efforts in areas with the most need.

“You have a right to heat in your apartment and there is a way to track and prove when you're not getting adequate heat, and you can stand up and fight back,” said Francois.

Recording the temperatures can help in cases when landlords don’t realize there is a problem and can be persuaded with valid data, explained Francois. But it can also be valuable in proving a case of harassment against a tenant in court, if it comes to that.

“There's a different subset of landlords who are, I think, more looking at it as this is a cost of doing business of trying to get these tenants to move out,” she said.

Still, not many tenants have the time or resources to invest in building their case for enforcement. And Heat Seek NYC is a small nonprofit run by Francois alone, who physically mails individual sensors to tenants. She currently has just over two dozen monitoring conditions in apartments across the city.

Francois says that legislators need to take a stand to hold landlords accountable.

“We're not going to solve this issue until the city starts taking seriously the fact that landlords are not providing adequate heat,” she said. “The onus should not be on the tenants to spend years in court proving it to still not have heat.”

Legislative proposals

Legislators have introduced bills aiming to make it safer and more affordable for tenants to maintain comfortable temperatures in their apartments.

In January, Congressman Jamaal Bowman introduced a federal bill to provide financial aid to individuals struggling with utility costs, by increasing funding to an already existing program and reducing red tape in the application process. His inspiration was his own experiences with inadequate heat.

“As a kid growing up in New York City, I've had to turn on my oven sometimes to heat the apartment, which was unsafe and unhealthy,” he said. “So many people are dealing with energy poverty. Those people are disproportionately people of color.”

This month, legislators have introduced a bill to improve the safety features of space heaters, in the wake of the fire in The Bronx. The Safe Space Heaters Act, introduced by Bronx Assemblymember Kenny Burgos and Manhattan Senator Cordell Cleare, would require all such devices sold in the state to have safety features, including a thermostat and an automatic shutoff.

Another piece of legislation inspired by The Bronx fire was sponsored in February by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman and former City Councilmember Ritchie Torres​​. The Housing Temperature Safety Act of 2022 would require that buildings receiving federal funds install heat sensors to monitor temperatures in real time.

“Currently what the law requires often falls short of what tenants need to remain warm in their homes,” said Torres in a press release announcing the introduction of the bill. “The feeling of freezing in apartments causes tenants to resort to space heaters out of sheer desperation.”

The Twin Parks fire was one of nine blazes this year linked to space heaters as of Monday, according to the Fire Department of New York. In 2021, there were 11 fires linked to space heaters in the city, including six in Brooklyn, two in The Bronx and Queens, and one in Manhattan. None of those fires resulted in injuries or deaths, the FDNY said.

Runa Rajagopal, of The Bronx Defenders, noted that she hopes the deadly fire in The Bronx will also result in increased accountability for building owners.

“It's just unfortunate that it always comes after a tragedy,” she said. “Hopefully, from this awful thing something will improve, like what these processes look like to create more accountability. It’s so hard on the tenants to get help for something they deserve.”

Liz Donovan is a Report for America corps member.