City sees spike in tenant heat complaints

Have you been shivering in your apartment this winter? You’re not alone.

Since Oct. 1, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development has received nearly 138,000 complaints of heat problems in residential buildings, nearly half of them in January alone.

That’s an 11 percent increase over the same period the previous year. On Jan. 7, when the National Weather Service reported a high of 19 degrees Fahrenheit and a low of 4 in New York City, HPD received a season-high 5,089 heating complaints in a single day.

Just a small fraction of such complaints results in a violation issued by HPD to a landlord for failing to provide adequate heat, data from the department suggest. In December, the number of heating-related violations added up to just 5 percent of all complaints received that month by HPD. In November, it was fewer than 3 percent.

Through December, the city’s coldest neighborhoods as measured by number of heating violations were Morris Heights, in the Bronx, and Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Landlords must pay $250 per violation, and certify within 10 days that a cited problem was fixed. If heating violations persist, HPD may perform emergency repairs and send the landlord the bill.


Where Tenants Are Feeling the Cold

Choose a tab to select “violations” or “complaints,” then click on the map to see the number of heat-related housing code violations or complaints in each ZIP code for December 2013. 

Tenant advocates describe a sometimes frustrating wait for relief.

“Ideally, they send out an inspector,” said Jaron Benjamin, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a tenant assistance group. But, he continued, “a lot of the time that doesn’t happen.” He says his group’s housing hotline frequently receives phone calls from tenants who have submitted a complaint to HPD but not yet heard back from the department.

Added Benjamin, “They’re just so short-staffed.”

HPD, which employs about 400 inspectors and supervisors, disputes that characterization.

“HPD has the most robust and responsive municipal housing code enforcement operation in the nation,” said spokesperson Eric Bederman. “The agency is well equipped to handle the volume of heat complaints it receives, and has the ability to increase staffing to deal with severe weather events.”

Bederman added, “Assuming that the number of violations should automatically equal the number of complaints points to an oversimplification of the code enforcement process and a lack of understanding of the data.”

HPD’s inspectors must sort through daunting numbers of complaints. Tenants can file a heating complaint by calling 311 — and they can (and often do) call repeatedly.

After receiving a complaint, HPD calls the tenant and landlord to see if the issue has been resolved. If a tenant says that the heat is still not working, HPD will send an inspector to the property.

Inspectors have made 56,458 heat-related visits to buildings so far this season. Following the inspections, the agency has issued 6,246 violations.

Why such a gap? In more than one in four visits, inspectors can’t get access needed to substantiate a violation. (Landlords have been known to padlock boiler rooms to block HPD from visiting.) Sometimes, the heat comes back on before the inspector arrives.

And in many cases, while tenants may feel chilly, the law is on the landlord’s side. Indoor temperature must be at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit during the day when the outdoor temperature is below 55 degrees. Between 10 p.m. and 6 p.m., the thermostat can go as low as 55 degrees when the temperature outside is 40 degrees or less.

HPD responds to complaints on a first-come, first-served basis. The agency urges tenants without heat not to use stoves or ovens as heating sources, and to keep fresh batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

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