Got Heat? Tenant Heating Complaints and a Civic-Tech Solution

Tom Hunter
Posted on Feb 6, 2017

Problem

Every year, hundreds of thousands of New York City residents file complaints with 311, a non-emergency call service that serves as the catch-all access point to all New York City agencies. Throughout the year, approximately two hundred different types of complaints are logged, ranging from excessive noise to rude taxi cab drivers to dangerous road conditions. The biggest offender, however, has historically been heating complaints. On average, the temperature from October to May in New York City is in the low-to-mid-40s and many tenants, who often have no control over their heat or hot water, are at the mercy of their landlords to provide adequate heat.

The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development ("HPD") is tasked with making sure that landlords and property owners provide heat and hot water to their tenants. The required heating season runs from October 1st through May 31st of each year. Landlords are required to provide heat if the outdoor temperature is below 55ºF during the day (6 a.m. to 10 p.m.) or below 40ºF at night. When it is that cold out, your landlord is simply required, by law, to ensure that your apartment is at least 68ºF during the day or at least 55ºF at night. Failure to comply with this law can result in fines up to $1,000 per day for non-compliance.

heat-and-hot-water-poster

 

Unfortunately, HPD struggles to enforce the law, with both long wait times for inspections and slow, bureaucratic processes slowing down timely enforcement. All the while, landlords ignore their tenant’s complaints, and the city’s fines, and fail to adequately heat their buildings.

Solution

Fortunately, Heat Seek, a civic-tech focused, NYC based not-for-profit, is trying to solve this problem using 21st century IoT technologies. Full disclosure here; I didn't just stumble upon this cool non-profit, in fact, I am on the board. Heat Seek uses web-connected temperature sensors which can be installed in any number of apartments throughout a building. Sensors take hourly temperature readings and send them through an onboard internet connection to secure servers, where we store the data all winter long. To ensure data custody, the Heat Seek team conducts all installs and protects the devices from potential tampering.

The Heat Seek application analyzes sensor data, alongside with outdoor temperature data, in order to record each hour whether the temperature falls below the legal limit as defined by the NYC Housing Code. Data is displayed in a graph as well as a comprehensive heat log, so that tenants and their advocates have robust data to take to court and to use in landlord-tenant negotiations.

Armed with this data, public interest attorneys, community organizers, and even city officials can advocate on behalf of at-risk tenants, and better hold landlords accountable for their negligence and harassment. Our data can demonstrate patterns of landlord abuse: manipulating the heat before, during, and after city inspections; targeting specific tenants; using heat as a harassment tactic; and more.

 

Data and Project Goals

For my project, I wanted to meet two primary goals:

  • Visualize the 311 complaint data, updated daily on the NYC Open Data platform
  • Building a dashboard for HPD using anonymized Heat Seek sensor data

311 Heat Complaints Visualized

Complaints by year:

by_year

Complaints by Borough:

by_borough

Complaints by Winter:

by_winter

HPD Dashboard

A map of NYC sensor locations:

map

A scatter plot of sensor readings over time:

scatter

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