This February was the coldest on record in New York City since 1934. Most of us have been spending the winter bundled up inside with our radiators on. But not everyone in the city has reliable heat. Although landlords in New York are required to keep the temperature at a livable level throughout the winter, there are some 200,000 complaints from tenants every year that the heat is below the legal threshold.
Tenants can take their landlords to housing court over these violations. But it’s notoriously hard to prove heating violations. If you make a complaint, you’re required to check the thermostat regularly and manually record a temperature log. But that evidence can quickly become the tenant’s word against a landlord’s.
Heat Seek NYC is a nonprofit solving this problem with Internet-connected thermostats and a companion web app that logs the temperature every hour. The organization won $25,000 from the NYC BigApps competition in September 2014. This winter they have been running a small-scale pilot program with sensors in 21 apartments in four different buildings.
“Using the prize money, we were able to design our own devices and get them manufactured,” says Tom Hunter of the Heat Seek team. “We started by distributing sensors to tenants who had really bad landlord heating situations and really needed someone to monitor their compliance.”
The pilot program is currently running in the Bronx and Brooklyn in lower-income areas where the problem is most acute. In just this winter and in those handful of units, Heat Seek has recorded 5,000 violations of the city’s heating laws–where each violation is an hour when the temperature was below the legally mandated 68 degrees during the day or 55 degrees at night.
Heat Seek, which originally started as an end of semester project for some coders at the Flatiron School, is now working with organizations like Urban Justice Center to shepherd cases through housing court. The next big milestone for the project is to get a judge to rule in favor of a tenant based on Heat Seek data. That would set a precedent that the courts see these devices as reliable and unbiased evidence.
Hunter stresses that their target audience isn’t just negligent or abusive landlords. Heat Seek has also received a number of requests from landlords who want to be able to better monitor the temperature in their buildings to make sure it stays warm enough through the winter. Landlords of older buildings have, in particular, reached out to request a Heat Seek device.
Eventually, Heat Seek hopes that a successful pilot program in NYC will let them expand to other cities. The demand and need is certainly there.
“Other northeastern cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and Pittsburgh have similar laws so the technology would definitely be applicable,” says Hunter. “We’ve had a really cold winter and there are a lot of people who need heat.”