Five days of gratitude

Its been an incredible, and incredibly challenging, year at Heat Seek. We graduated from our incubator program, rolled out an entirely new sensor design, and helped dozens of families get their heat turned on. At the same time, with a budget shortfall looming, in August Anthony made the difficult decision to seek employment elsewhere. Grants came in, but others fell through. It has truly been a year of ups and downs. And yet, we have so much to be grateful for.

This week, in preparation for Thanksgiving, we'll be spending time reflecting on a few of the things we're most grateful for at Heat Seek.

Our hope is to give you a glimpse behind the curtain, to share just a few of the people, organizations, and companies that have helped make Heat Seek the organization it is today, and who continue to support us to ensure that all New Yorkers go to bed safe, healthy, and warm each night. We could not do this work without them.


First up, we are so grateful for the incredible generosity of attorneys like Stephanie Rudolph at the Urban Justice Center and Sunny Noh at The Legal Aid Society. When we were first getting started, these pro bono housing lawyers spent countless hours with us, walking us through the process of submitting a heat complaint, allowing us to shadow them in housing court, and introducing us to their clients. Their willingness to share their knowledge and expertise, as well as feedback on our product, has been absolutely indispensable in getting Heat Seek to where it is today; we would have been lost without their early insights and support.

With so many tech startups focused on maximizing profit, it's a real privilege to build tools that actually help folks solve an acute, dangerous problem in their lives. We are so honored to work with, and learn from, talented committed public servants like Stephanie and Sunny.

Check out Stephanie in the video below:

Time to Level Up our tech

The new technology will “simplify installation and bring together our sensors and on-device datalogging to SD card to ensure we never miss a measurement, and a swappable networking component, which lets us use the same basic platform when connecting via Wifi, Cell, or LoRaWAN networks.”
— - Eric Skiff, Founder, Tanooki Labs

Did you know that Heat Seek's first round of sensors were entirely designed and built by volunteers? Back when we won BigApps in 2014, we had one working prototype and it looked like this ↓ !

Lucky for us, we have some of the best volunteers in the world. They're incredibly talented hardware engineers, software developers, and designers, and they helped us build the custom Heat Seek sensors we've been using ever since. 

But after three winters in the field, a significant number of our sensors are broken or worn out. It's time for Heat Seek to level up, with a new sensor design that's more reliable, more precise, and less expensive to install.


We're moving away from our original mesh network design - radio signals don't travel well through dense concrete and metal rebar, making our whole system fragile - and instead planning for each sensor to have its own onboard internet connection.

To increase versatility and reduce cost, our new sensors will be able to connect to WiFi, cellular internet, or even LoRaWAN, depending on the situation. This means we can maximize connectivity options and do installs in the coldest apartments in a building, regardless of the building's layout.

The new sensor will have a more precise thermometer (+/- .5° C) and a humidity sensor to calculate the heat index, for future summer use.

These new sensors will be more reliable, significantly easier to install, quicker to manufacture, and ultimately provide our clients with better data. 

This is a large part of why we need your support now. It's not often that a nonprofit designs a hardware product, an expensive, time-consuming process that requires highly-skilled labor. If we could purchase an off-the-shelf sensor that meets our clients' needs, we certainly would. But so far, there isn't a cheaper alternative to the custom temperature sensors we're building.

In order for our new sensors to be ready for fall, we need to start the manufacturing process now. Will you help us keep more neighbors warm?

Working prototype of the new sensor design. "The new sensors place an emphasis on simplicity and reliability, so things like a failed radio transmission or network connection will never get in the way of writing an accurate temperature log to the SD card." -Ryan Boland, chief product designer of our new sensor

Working prototype of the new sensor design. "The new sensors place an emphasis on simplicity and reliability, so things like a failed radio transmission or network connection will never get in the way of writing an accurate temperature log to the SD card." -Ryan Boland, chief product designer of our new sensor

If you believe in Heat Seek's mission, we need your support today to raise $50,000. This allows us to:

  • Double the number of cold New Yorkers Heat Seek serves
  • Improve Heat Seek’s sensor design to be cheaper and more reliable
  • Advocate for new regulations to force the worst landlords to install sensors in their buildings 
  • Wrap up this winter's court cases that are using Heat Seek’s sensor data, ensuring that those tenants aren’t back in court next year

Years of Organizing = a Warm Winter!

Loraine wasn’t going to stop until she and her neighbors got what was right. Thankfully, now they can stop, because with Heat Seek's help, they won!

It’s not a story we hear all the time: of tenants forming a coalition strong enough to beat the landlord at every turn, securing that which should have been theirs all along: a safe home for their families. Often, there are just too many pitfalls: the landlord wins in Housing Court, tenants get intimated by the landlord’s actions, the city declares the building uninhabitable, and more. Thankfully, for Loraine and her neighbors in a small building in the heart of Flatbush, they combined lots of diligent work with skilled support, fearless grit, and a little luck.

Heat Seek began working in Loraine’s building last winter, when the temperatures were some of our coldest in the city: entire days in the low 60s, with the only heat coming when the city inspector showed up. After the season, we wondered why our organizing partners hadn’t initiated a group case in Housing Court or tried another landlord strategy. This season, though, we learned that sometimes the win comes a little later than we had hoped--and with a more enduring effect.

“This winter, I’d call the super to let him know our heat was low, and he’d immediately turn it on,” Loraine told Heat Seek. This was the same super who, in previous years, had refused to provide service to Loraine and the other long-time tenants, insisting that they call the management company instead. To what was this change attributed?

“They knew about the sensors this year. They knew they were being watched.” 

It’s a powerful testimony to Heat Seek’s impact for some tenants, recognizing that not all landlords are deterred by this monitoring and not all tenants want their landlord to know they have a sensor. Many landlords can abuse and harass tenants so effectively because it often takes place in the shadows: confrontations at a tenant’s door, cold temperatures except when the inspector visits, lengthy construction times meant to make life miserable for the building’s longtime residents. Thankfully, Heat Seek’s sensors are able to monitor landlord behavior, in real time and around the clock. 

But the heat in Loraine’s building is also a testament to the ongoing work of the building’s tenant association and the support of their organizers at Flatbush Tenant Coalition. These tenants have endured the worst of landlord tactics aimed to drive out these long-time, rent-regulated tenants and bring in market-rate tenants.

After an ownership change twelve years ago, the building started to deteriorate. “You could see the basement through the holes in my floor,” Loraine says, reporting persistent leaks and pervasive mold, damaged stairs, and a front door with no lock. After Loraine and her neighbors discovered that everyone was living in horrible conditions, they resolved to take action to get what they deserved. Letters to the landlord proved ineffective, so they escalated their efforts and showed up in front of the landlord’s mansion in a gated community, where the neighbors didn’t take kindly to this public shaming. 

Even after the repairs were made, however, the landlord made it clear not only that they didn’t want these tenants living there--but they sought to prevent any future tenants “like them” from renting apartments. “The landlord told a group of us one night that they didn’t want any Black people or people with children to rent there anymore,” Loraine tells Heat Seek. “They were trying to intimate us, so we fought back.” The tenants sought out the assistance of the Fair Housing Justice Center, which deployed testers to apply to an open rental in the building. The white and Asian applicants were approved; the Black and Latinx folks denied, which resulted in fines over $200,000. 

Despite these illegal rental practices, tenant harassment, and willful neglect, the landlord continues to buy up properties in Flatbush, a neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying. Living in the neighborhood that Loraine and her husband love so much, with family and friends from their home countries of Grenada and Trinidad, is becoming prohibitively expensive, especially as more rent-regulated units are converted to market rate. 

Loraine and her neighbors keep fighting, and Heat Seek is proud to support their longtime work, alongside our partner, Flatbush Tenant Coalition. “Heat Seek is an amazing tool, an amazing program,” Loraine tells us in a recent interview. “I hope for you all next year that you have more monitors in more buildings.”

We do, too, Loraine. We do, too.

To support our work with tenants like Loraine, click here.


 

Harlem Tenant Brings Heat Seek Log to Force Landlord

[Please note: names and identifying details have been changed to protect the tenants]

“Every time they came to fix it, they just touched the radiator and said everything was fine,” Sandra said of the maintenance workers in her building. While she’s lived in Harlem for many years, this was her first winter in this building, and it was COLD.

“I called to report the problem, and they wouldn’t do anything about it. I know it’s a building-wide issue that many of my neighbors struggle with,” but Sandra refused to let us. Since this was the main problem in her apartment--no other significant repairs to be made--she hadn’t yet engaged an attorney or community organizer. So, “I reached out to Heat Seek in the midst of my misery”, through a request form on our website. 

Because we had some extra hardware in February, we were able to install sensors for several tenants from our waitlist who lived in buildings that fit our criteria: bad landlords in gentrifying neighborhoods who are trying to drive out rent-regulated tenants. “There’s a concerted effort to get lifelong Harlem residents out of the building, raise the rents, and bring in people of higher incomes,” Sandra reported to Heat Seek. 

After a few weeks with a Heat Seek sensor, we confirmed that her temperatures were consistently below the legal limit, and Sandra wanted to take action. She knew that the city inspection system wouldn’t fix her problem quick enough, so she hand-delivered a demand letter to the landlord, which Heat Seek provided to her along with her heat log.

Her landlord was taken aback--by both Sandra’s persistence and Heat Seek’s sensor--so the chiefs of management and maintenance met with her. “This can’t be right,” they complained, upon first examining her heat log. “I know it’s right,” Sandra replied, confident in her data. Convinced by Heat Seek’s third-party testimony, the management agreed to send another maintenance person again.

“This time, they took the radiator apart, diagnosed the problem, and fixed the broken part. They spent two hours there, unlike their previous visits, and my heat was immediately better!” Sandra tells Heat Seek. “It was nerve-wracking approaching my landlord: I have a lease that ends and don’t know if they want me out. I would not have done it without Heat Seek, a third party without a dog in the fight who just monitors and reports what they see.”

We hear stories like this from many of our tenants: our third-party heat logs provide them much-needed tools in their struggle for sufficient heat. Our work can prevent them from the miserable process of Housing Court, by proving both the tenant's will and the severity of their temperatures. Sometimes, Heat Seek is enough to convince some landlords to do the right thing and turn up the heat.  
 

TENANT UPDATE: $128,000 FINE AGAINST BAD LANDLORD

After many months of appearances to court, Linda Smith finally won! While Housing Court does not offer "damages" to tenants, Linda secured two months of rent abatement [free rent]--on top of the two months she got earlier this winter. Her attorney also succeeded in compelling the city to punish the landlord with a $128,000 fine for his willful negligence of her building. Her attorney employed Heat Seek data to demonstrate that the landlord had failed to comply with the previous ruling, where he promised to provide legal amounts of heat.

Heat Seek is proud to support tenants like Linda, and we're so glad she continues to win better conditions for herself and her neighbors!

Tenant Spotlight: Linda Smith, East New York

Carbon monoxide leaks. Winter days with temperatures in the 50s in her living room. A landlord seeking maximum profit by failing to make repairs in a 100 year-old building.

 

Linda Smith is determined to stay in a community she has called home for decades. A longtime resident of East New York, Linda Smith has spent her adult life working to build and maintain her neighborhood, which is now under threat from landlords and developers--including her own. Linda lives in a small building full of longstanding senior citizens and young working-class families of color, in a neighborhood that is slated for rezoning under Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious Housing New York Plan. While the plan is intended to preserve as much affordable housing as possible, the influx of interest and capital encourages the kind of landlord abuse and harassment that Linda is experiencing.

 

The lack of repairs and services are nothing new: since the landlord passed on the building to his children over ten years ago, they have sought to increase profits at the sake of tenants. Linda helped to organize her neighbors, where together they shared common stories of bad leaks and no heat and hot water and sought help from the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), which enforces the Housing Code.

 

But this help can be hard to secure: “Most people are out during the day at work,” Linda reflects, referencing HPD’s unscheduled visits that require tenants to be home all day. “Once you miss HPD, that’s it.” She has tried to work with her landlord to get needed repairs and services, to no end. She’s also tried to work directly with her landlord, telling them many times about the heat problem and that the 22 year-old boiler was insufficient and dangerous.

 

Sadly, she was right. Last October, Smith detected carbon monoxide and called 911. When the fire department came, they discovered that the malfunctioning boiler was emitting toxic levels of carbon monoxide and thanked Linda for calling before anyone was injured.

 

This was the last straw. Smith began working with an attorney at the Legal Aid Society, who has begun a group case against her landlord. Her lawyer reached out to Heat Seek, and Heat Seek installed sensors for her and a neighbor earlier this winter. These sensors measured entire January days when the heat stayed below 60 degrees in her living room--truly a bone-chilling temperature in which to live.

 

“Although it has been cold for me, it’s nice to have the data to prove that I have no heat this winter,” says Linda. Her attorney has also found it useful in court: he secured a 100% rent abatement for her in March and April, to compensate for lack of heat. Furthermore, HPD settled with the landlord to lower the $14,000 in fines if he provided heat by March 3rd.

 

Sadly, it looks like Linda is headed back to court, since we see clearly that the heat didn’t come on. But, armed with Heat Seek data, Linda and her attorney will keep pressing the landlord and proving his failure to provide services.


A former civil rights activist and current decade-long volunteer at a local nursing home, Linda knows what it takes for neighborhoods to thrive, and safe, affordable housing is a cornerstone. She’ll keep fighting for her own rights, alongside those of young and old alike to make East New York a healthy community for all, and Heat Seek is proud to join her in this fight.

Help spread the word!

Hi everyone,

Heat Seek is looking to hire a user researcher to help us evaluate & learn from an MVP data tool we’ve built (soon to go live!). Please help us get the word out by sharing with anyone in your networks who might be interested! 

Statement of Work


Statement of Work

User research for data aggregation tool.

 

Framing

Heat Seek is looking for an experienced user researcher to design and execute a user feedback project for a new MVP data advocacy and aggregation tool. Ideal candidates will be dedicated advocates of a user-centered approach to product development. They will have experience defining, planning, and conducting user feedback, facilitating project management, and compiling insights into actionable next steps. In collaboration with the Executive Director, the UX researcher will be responsible for the entire lifecycle of the user-testing phase.

 

Problem Statement

Housing lawyers and tenant organizers do not currently have an easy way to research and identify tenants at risk of harassment by their landlords. A variety of existing datasets, both public and private, can help shed light on buildings, landlords, and even whole neighborhoods where tenants are disproportionately at risk of harassment, but they are not always easy to access, even for data savvy individuals. Moreover, the datasets exist in different places across the web, making it extremely difficult to detect patterns and draw insights across disparate datasets.

To address this, we are creating an MVP data tool that aggregates data from a variety of datasets into one database to allow organizers and lawyers to quickly and easily draw insights, detect patterns, and ultimately make decisions about where to focus proactive outreach efforts to identify tenants at risk of harassment and eventual eviction/displacement. We are seeking an experienced user researcher to gather user feedback on the MVP tool and provide insight and recommendations to Heat Seek about whether this is a mission-aligned and cost effective project to continue and expand.

 

Working closely with the Heat Seek team, this user research project seeks to answer the following questions: :

    • How might lawyers and organizers use the data tool? What areas of their work will it help them with?

      • Example: Does this tool help lawyers and organizers proactively identify buildings where tenants are at risk of harassment and forced displacement through data?

    • Does the data tool help improve:

      • Users’ existing workflow around information gathering and decision making

      • Users’ prioritization of casework, and how they approach proactive outreach

      • Users’ access to information that can drive data driven decision making

    • Are the right data sets included or are there other data needs that should be prioritized or included?  

    • What user experience and functionality is needed for users to adopt the data tool? What will make it “better” than their current workflow and tools?

      • What are their barriers and pain points around data accessibility? Does the tool help them to overcome those?

      • What is their understanding of the benefits of the data tool? Is there accompanying training or other resources that would increase the chances of the data tool being used?

      • What is their willingness to engage in proactive, data-driven outreach resulting from using the tool?

 

Deliverables

    • A comprehensive  user research plan, using appropriate quantitative and qualitative methods, targeted at answering the aforementioned questions. Plans should include a mix of the following: one-on-one usability studies, remote usability studies, online and in-person focus groups and/or workshops, and in-depth interviews.

    • Interview guides with up to two rounds of revisions

    • Management and facilitation of focus groups, workshops, interviews

    • Written interview notes

    • A presentation of findings and analysis (document or PowerPoint) to the Heat Seek team

      • Analysis should provide insight into whether Heat Seek should continue to invest time and resources on this tool

Time Frame

    • We expect this project to begin in mid-April, and to encompass part time work for approximately 2-3 months

 

To apply, please send your resume, along with a cover letter detailing your prior experience working on at least two user research projects, to noelle@heatseek.org by 4/12/17.

 

About Heat Seek

Heat Seek works at the intersection of innovative technology and tenant advocacy to provide new tools in the fight to maintain affordable housing in New York City. A non-profit organization that empowers lawyers, organizers, and city officials, we provide low-cost, web-connected temperature sensors to tenants facing heating abuse and harassment, and we conduct analysis of both temperature data and citywide data to provide new ways for advocates to target and reach at-risk tenants.

After press conference, temperature improves substantially at 178 Rockaway Parkway

The temperature data coming from 178 Rockaway Parkway in Brownsville couldn't paint a clearer picture of a landlord manipulating the heat.

Heat Seek installed temperature sensors in the building in October in partnership with The Legal Aid Society, and in the weeks that followed, they recorded hundreds of hours in which the temperature was below the legal limit according to NYC Housing Code. Despite a long, warm fall, nearly 25% of the hours were in violation. 

Last week, Heat Seek held a press conference in front of the building to announce a partnership with Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and The Legal Aid Society. The same day, Legal Aid Society attorneys filed a case against the landlord in NYC Housing Court.

And then a funny thing happened...

The heat came on! After weeks in which the temperature hovered at or around 60 degrees, the temperature increased almost a full 10 degrees the day after the press conference.

Check out the data below:

Heat Seek sensor data before the press conference...

Pre-press conference

And after...

Post press conference

At Heat Seek, we're thrilled with this outcome. We'll continue to monitor the building to ensure that the heat stays on. But for now, the tenants at 178 Rockaway Parkway can rest easy, knowing we're keeping a watchful eye on their data.

Press Release: partnership with Brooklyn Borough PResident, housing lawyers and impacted tenants

Shout out to our amazing volunteer Andrea Katz for making our beautiful map!

Shout out to our amazing volunteer Andrea Katz for making our beautiful map!

Last week we announced our partnership with Borough President Eric AdamsThe Legal Aid SocietySt. Nicks Alliance, and Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A.

As BP President Eric Adams stated: "I am proud to work with the innovative team at Heat Seek NYC, our incredible legal advocates, as well as courageous tenants throughout the borough that are standing up for their housing rights."

With Heat Seek sensors, we are empowering Brooklyn tenants as they face bad-acting landlords denying them heat. We also look forward to "using cool technology to warm the homes of Brooklynites, while putting bad-acting landlords on the hot seat for their harassing behavior."

See the original press release copied below and check out the related news coverage:

__________________________________________________

PRESS RELEASE:

JOINED BY IMPACTED TENANTS AND HOUSING LAWYERS, BP ADAMS ANNOUNCES LAWSUIT BASED ON DATA FROM TECHNOLOGY PARTNERSHIP TO MONITOR HEATING-RELATED HARASSMENT IN BROOKLYN APARTMENT BUILDINGS

BOROUGH PRESIDENT EXPRESSES INTENT TO EXPAND COLLABORATION WITH LOCALLY-BASED NON-PROFIT HEAT SEEK NYC THROUGH FUNDING FOR MONITORING HARDWARE, DATA TRAINING FOR HOUSING COURT JUDGES, AND LEGISLATIVE EFFORT TO CODIFY CITY’S ABILITY TO USE REMOTE TEMPERATURE MONITORS FOR ENFORCEMENT OF HEAT STANDARDS

BROOKLYN, NY, December 1, 2016: Today, Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams joined impacted tenants and housing lawyers in announcing a lawsuit based on data from an expanding technology partnership to monitor heating-related harassment in Brooklyn apartment buildings. Standing outside 178 Rockaway Parkway in Brownsville, a property that has had numerous heat complaints through 311, they discussed how residents across the borough are utilizing sensors from Heat Seek NYC, the winner of the NYC BigApps 2014 contest, to remotely track the temperature in their homes during the winter months. Their technology, using sensor hardware and web applications, helps ensure that heat levels in apartments fall within the legal range, while providing data-based evidence to verify heating code abuse claims in housing court. Borough President Adams first forged connections back in 2014 between this locally-based non-profit and a number of properties managed by good-acting landlords such as Fifth Avenue Committee, who agreed to use the technology on a proactive monitoring basis. Now, as part of his larger focus on combating tenant harassment, he detailed $5,000 in new funding his office has allocated to build additional monitoring hardware at five buildings across the borough, including 178 Rockaway Parkway.

“My message to landlords across Brooklyn is that we’re watching; don’t harm your tenants’ quality of life all because of greed,” said Borough President Adams. “Combating tenant harassment has been a hallmark of my administration, and we are tackling this challenge through traditional and groundbreaking approaches alike. We are using cool technology to warm the homes of Brooklynites, while putting bad-acting landlords on the hot seat for their harassing behavior. I am proud to work with the innovative team at Heat Seek NYC, our incredible legal advocates, as well as courageous tenants throughout the borough that are standing up for their housing rights.”

Underscoring the imperative for addressing this issue, Borough President Adams presented 311 data that highlighted problem neighborhoods for residential heating complaints citywide, which correspond heavily with areas of economic hardship and gentrification. Between October 2015 and May 2016, the Brooklyn ZIP code with the highest number of complaints was 11226, covering Ditmas Park and Flatbush; other ZIP codes that experienced a high number of heating issues, per the data, included 11207, 11208, 11210, 11212, 11213, 11216, 11221, 11225, 11233, and 11238.

“Heat Seek is grateful for the support of Borough President Adams, and is excited to partner with his office and community advocates throughout the borough to target landlords who abuse their tenants by withholding heat,” said Noelle Francois, executive director of Heat Seek NYC. “Our innovative technology is a simple, low-cost way to hold bad landlords accountable and provide relief for many of our neighbors this winter, especially in neighborhoods like Brownsville. With Borough President Adams’ support, we’re eager to build on this work and get more sensors where they’re needed most in our city.”

The buildings selected for the expansion of this partnership were chosen through a combination of variables, including the number of 311 complaints, community input to identify bad actors, and looking at the next 200 landlords who are not currently enrolled in the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD)’s Alternative Enforcement Program (AEP). Borough President Adams explained that he is only identifying 178 Rockaway Parkway as a recipient in order to put all landlords in the borough “on notice.” According to Heat Seek NYC, 178 Rockaway Parkway had at least seven heating complaints in the last 96 hours, as well as more than 100 heating complaints during the 2014-15 winter. The sensors that have been deployed in the building for several weeks have reflected a variety of temperature readings below the legal minimum.

“On November 29, 2016, The Legal Aid Society’s Tenant Rights Coalition filed a lawsuit against the owner of 178 Rockaway Parkway in Brooklyn due to its failure to provide adequate heat during this winter season,” said Sunny Noh, supervising attorney for the Tenant Rights Coalition of the Legal Aid Society. “The lack of heat is a serious problem for low-income tenants in New York City. The tenants of this building have complained of inadequate heat for years to no avail. It is a common tactic for some landlords to routinely turn up the heat when HPD is scheduled to inspect their buildings, sometimes making it difficult for HPD to place violations for inadequate heat during the winter months. With the assistance of Heat Seek NYC, tenants and tenant advocates are able to monitor temperatures in apartments throughout the heating season and use this information to hold this landlord accountable.”

Borough President Adams also outlined legislative action he will be working on with the City Council, in particular Council Member Ritchie Torres, that would allow for the installation of heat sensors in apartment buildings, as well as for their utilization as a means to combat heating-related abuse by bad-acting landlords. Additionally, Borough President Adams announced a training partnership between New York City Housing Court and Heat Seek NYC that will train housing court judges on how to interpret data collected by heat monitors.

“Technology such as heat sensors can help policymakers better understand how tenants are being impacted by heat violations in their own homes, and help inform new legislation,” said Council Member Torres. “I look forward to partnering with Borough President Adams to ensure tenants are protected and violations are tackled properly.”

Last year, Borough President Adams held a series of tenant harassment hearings in Downtown Brooklyn, East Flatbush, and Williamsburg. Nearly 150 unique testimonies were gathered, and his office was able to resolve roughly 50 percent of the cases by connecting them to needed services and legal representation. A number of the individuals who testified as witnesses about the housing problems they faced met with Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A (Brooklyn A) and civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who conducted comprehensive intakes with each tenant. These tenants were counseled on a wide variety of issues related to discrimination, harassment, and mistreatment, including illegal rent increases, faulty or lack of repairs, and deprivation of services. Additionally, Brooklyn A has undertaken the representation of groups of tenants who testified, particularly those experiencing building-wide problems of harassment and discrimination. Other cases are under careful review for potential to bring comprehensive housing litigation.

COLD, hard facts

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 heat 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 adequately provide warmth.

Thirty-five years ago the New York City government saw the heating of apartments as a very big issue and, as a result, The Truth in Heating law came into effect on January 1, 1981. This law, still in effect today, stipulates specific rules landlords must abide by when it comes to providing heat for tenants in rental units. First, if the outdoor temperature is below 55F during the day - defined as 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. - your landlord is required, by law, to ensure that your apartment is at least 68F. In the evenings, if the temperature outside falls below 40F, the inside temperature must be at least 55F. The ‘heat season’ during which these laws apply spans October 1st to May 31st each year.

Despite this law, many landlords ignore their tenant’s pleas, and the city’s fines, and fail to adequately heat their buildings. Last summer, Heat Seek analyzed New York City’s anonymized 311 complaint information to call attention to the scale of the heating problem in the city. This summer, we’re doing it again as we explore the newest round of data.

What have we uncovered so far? A couple of interesting findings, in fact. First, as seen in Figure 1, this past winter noise complaints surpassed heat complaints for the first time since the city began publishing its open data.

Figure 1: Total Complaint Counts by Winter

Second, we found an incredible 13% drop in heating complaints this past winter (Figure 2). Whereas the winter of 2014-2015 saw 230,702 heat-related complaints, this past winter recorded approximately thirty-thousand fewer heat complaints: 200,304. What’s more, it’s clear that the drop did not happen in just one borough, but across all boroughs.

Figure 2: Count of Heat Complaints by Winter by Borough

Despite this drop, we see the same relative proportions of heat complaints across the boroughs over time, as Figure 3 shows. The Bronx and Brooklyn make up the majority of the complaints - nearly 2/3rds. Manhattan and Queens compose about a third of the complaints, while Staten Island barely weighs in. This trend is consistent across heat seasons.

Figure 3: Percent of Heat Complaints by Winter by Borough

Why did the drop in heating complaints occur? It is difficult to be certain without digging in further - both into the 311 dataset and other datasets - and even asking HPD officials outright (as of this posting they haven’t yet responded to a request for comment). But it seems the most likely culprit is this past winter’s mild weather. Checking Weather Underground’s history, we found that this year’s winter was quite tame compared to past winters. Between October 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016, the average temperature in the city was 49F. For the same period a year ago, the average temperature was 45F. And for the winter of 2012-2013, the average temperature was even lower at 44F. While a few degrees might not seem like much, it likely means at least a few more of the bitterly cold days that cause a spike in heat complaints.

In order to explore further, we tried looking at the data another way. Rather than total complaint count, we looked at how many buildings had a heat complaint, to see if those figures followed a similar trend. They did. We found that almost 5,000 fewer buildings registered a heat complaint with 311 in 2015 compared to 2014.

Winter 2011-2012 - 30,616

Winter 2012-2013 - 37,411

Winter 2013-2014 - 34,848

Winter 2014-2015 - 37,685

Winter 2015-2016 - 32,770

This got us thinking - were fewer buildings making calls to 311 for all types of complaints, or just heat? It turns out that overall complaints (and the number of buildings making them) are actually increasing. More people are taking advantage of the 311 system to register complaints than ever before, a result of the city’s population increasing, and more and more New Yorkers becoming aware of 311.

Winter 2011-2012 - 348,123

Winter 2012-2013 - 376,094

Winter 2013-2014 - 399,285

Winter 2014-2015 - 441,624

Winter 2015-2016 - 466,096

At the end of the day, aggregates of complaints can only tell us so much about New York City’s heating crisis, since complaints are just a proxy for how often apartments are actually in violation of the law. That’s where Heat Seek data comes in. In future posts we’ll be analyzing our sensor data to provide context that the city’s open data alone can’t provide. Stay tuned!

would you move if your baby turned blue?

[Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the identity of our clients.]

When faced with landlords who do not provide sufficient heat per New York City laws, tenants are often forced to get creative in their efforts to respond to the cold: using an open oven or a space heater; buying more blankets; and even running the hot shower. But sometimes, moving out, temporarily or permanently, is the only tolerable response--typically, the last straw when something terrible happens as a result of the cold.

Rosa came home from the hospital with her healthy newborn daughter just as summer was ending. By the time winter arrived, though, Rosa was reminded that for the third year in a row, her landlord would not be providing sufficient heat for her apartment a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium. Rosa had weathered the cold before, but she didn’t imagine how the sub-60 temperatures inside would affect her baby.

Early in December, after the baby began experiencing breathing difficulties, Rosa realized she had to act. She took her daughter to the hospital, where she spent nine days recovering from bronchopneumonia. “The baby started turning blue, so I called the ambulance,” Rosa told Heat Seek’s Program Director. It was a scary time, and Rosa understood that the complete lack of heat at night and broken radiators in her apartment contributed to her baby’s serious condition.

Rosa knew she couldn’t keep living in that apartment for the winter, but she didn’t have the means to move out and potentially lose her rental assistance. So, she gathered up her three young children and moved in with her mother further north in the Bronx, in hopes that her children would stop crying from the cold and her baby would not develop more respiratory troubles.

Each day, Rosa would take the thirty-minute subway ride down to her neighborhood, drop her kids off at school and daycare, and then make her way to her hairstylist job. After a long day, she would repeat the process in reverse, with four children in tow. Only as spring emerged did the family return to living in their own apartment. “I just came back here a week and a half ago [in mid-April], once it got into the 60s during the day,” Rosa reported.

After she began working with an attorney at Bronx Legal Aid in late January, Rosa received a Heat Seek sensor in late January, which immediately recorded lots of violations that support Rosa’s testimony that her landlord was providing no heat at night and very little during the day. Temperatures rarely reached 70 degrees. The apartment was often in the low 60s, with temperatures below 40 outside. In 20 days, Rosa’s sensor recorded nearly 230 hours of violation--meaning that her apartment, on average, was below the legal limit nearly 50% of the day.

Thankfully, through the work of a dedicated attorney, Rosa successfully took her landlord to court, reaching an agreeable settlement. But the struggle continues: Rosa reports that her landlord has tried to force her to move--offering a mere $3,000 to leave and refusing to provide a lease or fix broken windows. With legal assistance, Rosa and her neighbors will keep fighting, working towards a winter with good heat and health for their children.

Spring is here: wrapping up our winter 2015 pilot

Spring is here, and as the weather gets warmer, we’re able to take a step back and reflect on this winter’s pilot program. It went exceedingly well! I thought I’d share a bit about how the program ran, how many folks we served, and what we accomplished this winter.

As many of you know, Heat Seek helps tenants resolve their home heating issues by providing the objective, reliable temperature data they need to hold their landlords accountable. We do this by installing low cost, web connected temperature sensors in buildings across New York City. 

For the winter 2015 pilot program, we sought out buildings with the following criteria: (1) an organized tenant association, (2) at a high risk for continued landlord abuse, as identified by our partners, and (3) stated willingness to bring a group case to housing court.

Heat Seek staff and volunteers install the temperature sensors at the beginning of heat season (Oct 1 - May 31), and they remain in place throughout the winter. The temperature sensors monitor the temperature by taking a reading once per hour. Readings are transmitted via 3G internet to our web app, where they are recorded in the tenant’s account.

The web app incorporates the outdoor temperature, the time of day, and time of year in order to identify whether or not a building is in violation of NYC housing code. Tenants and their advocates can access our web app at any time to view their readings and can download heat logs for use in tenant-landlord negotiations and/or housing court.

During the winter of 2016, Heat Seek ran a pilot program in 56 buildings throughout four boroughs.

By the numbers:

  • 56 buildings received sensors
  • 73 individual apartments served
  • 16 community partners, including attorneys, community organizations, and tenant groups, as well as the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) the city agency responsible for enforcing the housing code

Outcomes:

While we are still analyzing the results of the winter 2015 Pilot, a few initial trends have emerged:

Heat Seek data help clients achieve more favorable legal outcomes.

In three separate cases that spanned different attorneys and at least eight buildings, landlords made more concessions to their tenants and our clients.

“[Heatseek] data are much more digestible than manual heat logs, especially for judges.” Attorney, Legal Services NYC

“With Heat Seek, I was able to submit proof of the lack of heat in my client’s apartment. Upon seeing the evidence, the landlord and his attorney conceded the issue and the landlord agreed to waive all rent claims and provide a rent-stabilized lease.“ Edmund Witter, Attorney at Legal Aid Society

Landlords restore or increase heat provision when they know Heat Seek sensors have been deployed in their buildings.

In four buildings, tenants shared Heat Seek data directly with their landlords, who shortly thereafter turned up the heat. These increases in heat are reflected in our data.



To view the neighborhoods where Heat Seek was active this winter, be sure to check out our Pilot Map

It’s been a while, but we’re back!

I know, I know. We’ve been conspicuously absent from this blog for a while. In truth, we’ve been so busy running all over the city installing Heat Seek sensors, connecting with lawyers, attending tenant association meetings, and supporting folks in housing court that we haven’t had much time to share our progress with anyone outside our core team.

But today’s the day we’re changing all that. Get ready!

Update:

  • We’re in 50 buildings this winter (a HUGE increase from 6 last winter). William made a great map of all the buildings we’re in by City Council district, which you can check out here.
    • 10 of the buildings we’re in are NYCHA buildings. Did you know that NYCHA is the largest public housing authority in North America? Between 400,000 and 600,000 people live in NYCHA housing, but it’s been allowed to fall into disrepair and currently has a $16 billion capital backlog.
  • We have 10 cases with lawyers in housing court. As many of you know, this represents a very important goal for us this winter as we explore the variety of ways tenants use our data to get better outcomes in court.
  • Speaking of lawyers, we’ve grown our legal partners to include Legal Aid, Legal Services NYC, Brooklyn Legal Services Corp A, UJC, and MFY.
  • We’ve also grown our network of community partners to include CASA, Crown Heights Tenant Union, Flatbush Tenant Coalition, Pratt Area Community Council, Tenants and Neighbors, and UHAB.
    • Our legal & community partners represent our pipeline - they tell us which buildings are good candidates for Heat Seek sensors. By growing our partner network, we’re able to help more New Yorkers in need.
  • We’re spending the spring compiling success stories. We’re interviewing our tenants, community partners, and lawyers to get a sense of how they used our data this winter to get their heat restored. We’ll be compiling and sharing that soon!

In February, we also started our time at Beespace. Its a fantastic incubator with a ton of great supports (both financial and programmatic), and soon we’ll be working from there full time. We hold a weekly meetup there on Wednesdays from 6pm-8pm that’s open to the public - feel free to join us!

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We’ve got so much more to share, but that’s enough for one post. More to come soon…

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You don’t have to be a billionaire to give back

Donate Now


#GivingTuesday is about ordinary people coming together to make a difference in their communities.

At Heat Seek, we do that every day. At our core, we’re a group of New Yorkers who saw a problem in our community and decided to fix it. And now we’re asking for your help.

Donate $60 and we’ll provide a temperature sensor to a tenant in need. Donate $80 and we’ll provide a hub, establishing an internet connection and enabling a whole building to connect to the Heat Seek sensor network. If you’re feeling generous, $260 provides a starter kit (1 hub + 3 cells) to outfit a whole building with Heat Seek sensors.

With your help, we can empower New Yorkers with the data they need to hold their landlords accountable and get their heat restored.

Donate today to warm someone’s heart and home.

Donate Now

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BigApps Demo Day!

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We had so much fun hanging out at the 2015 BigApps demo day on Sunday. We attended as alumni, and got to share a bit about what Heat Seek has been up to in the past year. We also got to meet the amazing teams participating in this year’s competition, including JustFix, a fellow Catalyst project we think is pretty awesome. 

– Speaking of Catalyst, we moved in on Monday! We’ll post pics once we’ve set up our office (!!!), but for now, check out these picks of the awesome BigApps event –

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There were 4 different challenge categories, plus a few wild card entries.

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Celebrity sighting! Minerva Tantoco, CTO of New York City, chatting with team SQUID.

It’s almost time...

We’ve spent the past four weekends assembling, testing, and packaging sensors and it’s all paying off! We’ve got buildings lined up, and we’re almost ready to begin our winter 2015 pilot program.

Big thanks to Harold for letting us take over his living room last weekend!

Big News!

Hi all,

As many of you may have heard, we got accepted to Catalyst!! It’s an amazing incubator run by Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood that comes with funding, office space, and a whole host of advisers and networking opportunities. The incubator is specifically designed for teams creating tech solutions to alleviate poverty in NYC, so we know we’ll be in great company. We’re thrilled!

[Not quite sure what an incubator is? Check out this great definition]

With that, we’ve got some pretty exciting news. First, William quit his day job and will begin working for Heat Seek on Nov 2nd. Now we’ll have 2 people working on Heat Seek full-time, which is HUGE! We’re going to be able to accomplish so much more with two minds focused on the organization instead of one, and we’ve got a ton of great ideas in the pipeline. 

We’ll also be moving office spaces from Civic Hall (a fantastic civic-tech co-working space in NYC that everyone should check out if they haven’t already), to the Blue Ridge Labs office in Brooklyn. We’re excited that we’ll soon have dedicated office space, but we plan to continue to pop over to Civic Hall whenever possible to remain connected to this fantastic community.

Other than that, not much will change. We’re still gearing up for our pilot program and will begin distributing sensors in the next week or so. We’ve got 40 buildings lined up, and we’ve partnered with a bunch of new community organizations to make sure our sensors reach the tenants who need them most. We’ve got a code-sprint coming up to make the cold map more powerful, and we’ll provide more details on once everything’s finalized. And we’ll continue to actively pursue grants and donations to keep our work going. 

We are so humbled by all the support we’ve received since we started this project last year, and particularly in the lead up to our final pitch for Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood. To all those who have contributed their time, talents, advice, or simply kind words to Heat Seek over the past months, please know it is much appreciated

Noelle

SHOUT OUT!

Congrats to our amazing team member + board chair Daniel Kronovet for winning the top prize at Columbia University’s data science hackathon last weekend! Daniel and his team created a model for predicting where in the city heat complaints are most likely to occur. Check out the full write-up here: http://bit.ly/1OnPy0e