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...
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.
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:
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.
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!
[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, 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
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!
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!
- 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!
We’ve got so much more to share, but that’s enough for one post. More to come soon…
You don’t have to be a billionaire to give back
#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.
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 –
There were 4 different challenge categories, plus a few wild card entries.
Celebrity sighting! Minerva Tantoco, CTO of New York City, chatting with team SQUID.
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!
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.
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
And that means time for an update from Heat Seek! So let’s jump right in, shall we?
After everything we learned from our deployments last year, we’ve spent the summer upgrading our hardware and software to make Heat Seek sensors increasingly failsafe, and user-friendly for folks without a tech background. Their range is longer, the 3G is more reliable, and we’ve built in a number of features to ensure that we’re capturing consistent, reliable temperature readings all winter long.
Beginning in mid-October, we’ll deploy 120 sensors in approximately 40 low-income buildings throughout Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. We’re partnering with new community organizations, like Brooklyn Legal Services Corp A and Housing Conservation Coordinators, to help us identify the buildings where our sensors will have the greatest impact. We’re also sharing all the temperature data we collect with HPD, the city agency tasked with investigating heating complaints, to help them better deploy their inspectors at the times when they’re most likely to catch a violation. In short, we’re poised to make a big impact this winter.
We’re also thinking about the longevity and sustainability of Heat Seek as an organization. We’ve applied to Catalyst, a new incubator from Blue Ridge Labs that provides resources, funding, and advising to teams building technology enabled-products and services with the potential to improve the lives of low-income New Yorkers. We’ve made it through two rounds of cuts and have one left to go, so please keep your fingers crossed for us!
For those of you waiting on sensors as part of your Kickstarter perk, never fear - they’re coming! The sensor updates we spent all summer working on were made to your sensors, too. By waiting a little longer than anticipated to send you your sensors, we’re ensuring the product we ship you is the best it can be – simple, user-friendly, and resilient.
Have questions, comments, or contacts you think we should be talking to? Just want to know more? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you!
Want to support Heat Seek’s fall deployment? Click here to donate. Your contribution helps us provide Heat Seek sensors to low-income New Yorkers in need.
From all of us at Heat Seek, happy fall!
Ever wonder how we work our data science magic? At Heat Seek, we’ve spent the entire summer delving into the data behind NYC’s heating crisis, and this week, we’re going to pull back the curtain and show you how it’s done (or at least how we’ve done it). We want to make sure everyone – from city officials to regular citizens – has the opportunity to follow along.
If it’s over your head, don’t worry about it. But you might be surprised. We’ve taken care to explain what we do in a way that’s understandable, even to tech beginners like our ED, Noelle. She confirmed: you can easily get the gist, even if you don’t know how to code.
And if data science is your thing – and let’s be honest, data nerds might be the only ones regularly following our blog anyway – this week you’re in for a treat.
Each analysis we produce is carefully constructed, and how we collect, analyze and visualize the data is important. In reality, there isn’t any one single method or technique. Our team, like any good data science team, uses a number of tools, methods and programming languages to extract meaningful information from a vast amount of data.
So hop on over to our github, where we’ve provided examples of our methods, and the detailed steps we’ve taken to construct our analyses and visualizations. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced civic hacker, we invite you to explore the variety of datasets related to New York City’s heating crisis.
Lead data scientist at Heat Seek
We’ve spent the past few months combing through NYC’s open data in order to get an accurate picture of the heating crisis in New York. Our investigation uncovered a lot: heating complaints have increased in each of the past four years in New York City, and last winter inadequate heat was the number one complaint in four out of the five boroughs.
Lots of people have told us that the only reason complaint counts are up is because the past few winters have been unusually cold. And that’s true; weather obviously plays a role. The colder it is outside, the more heating complaints come in to 311. We saw this when we compared the city’s daily complaint count to historic temperature data from Weather Underground. But even if complaint counts are only up because the last few years have been unusually cold, that still means more people are freezing in their homes. We can’t control the weather, but we can make sure that when it’s cold, more landlords are following the law.
Looking at the data made us wonder what other systemic issues are contributing to such high heating complaint numbers. And so, this week we’re focusing on income.
As you may have guessed, our Coldmap suggests that individuals living in lower income zip codes submit a higher number of complaints. But we wanted to know whether there’s truly a correlation between low income zip codes and higher heat complaints.
Using the U.S. Census Bureau’s CitySDK toolset, we compared heat complaint count and median income in Manhattan and the Bronx. In the scatter plot below, Bronx zip codes are represented in orange and Manhattan zip codes in blue. Our x axis shows the median income for the given zip code and our y axis shows total complaint count.
It’s clear that on average, zip codes with lower median incomes have higher complaint counts. Zip code 10458, located in the Bronx just west of the Bronx zoo, had a whopping 7,726 complaints last year. By comparison, zip code 10007, which encompasses the World Trade Center and City Hall in lower Manhattan, had only 15.
For reference, the median income in New York City is $50,711. (For those who need a refresher, median refers to the middle point in a series of ordered data, while mean refers to the average. Medians are unaffected by outliers at the top and bottom, while means can more easily become skewed).
Of course, we have to employ statistics to demonstrate a true correlation. In this case, we began to look at curve fits. A curve line fit helps us ‘predict’ the location of additional data if we were to plot it, and helps us determine whether a true correlation exists.
In the chart below you can see how the curve fit demonstrates this correlation: our line shows that complaint counts rise with lower median income levels and dips lower as the median income for a zip code increases. If a new zip code from the five boroughs with a lower median income were added to the chart, we can be fairly certain that the complaint count would be higher than a zip code with a higher median income. While our Coldmap and other analyses led us to believe that income levels played a role in heat complaint counts, our analysis this week makes it clear that there is a strong statistical correlation between income level and complaint count.
I would imagine most of you reading this are saying, “Duh!” right about now. But it’s worth a reminder that adequate heat is protected by law in NYC, regardless of how much money you make or how much you pay in rent. This drastic disparity between who suffers from lack of heat and who doesn’t should not exist. At Heat Seek, we’re doing everything we can to shine a light on this issue. We hope you’ll support us in ensuring that all New Yorkers have access to the decent housing they deserve.
In 2003, Rebecca Sharp, an immigrant from New Zealand, moved into an apartment building in Washington Heights. Despite some early signs of trouble — there had been a police raid in her building just before she moved in — she was optimistic about her new apartment and her new landlord.
“I was under the impression that if you moved into someone’s house that they own, and you take care of it, and you’re a good tenant, and you pay your rent on time, then that’s it,” Sharp said.
Fast-forward to 2015. Sharp, who is entering her thirteenth year in the same Washington Heights apartment, has seen her cautious optimism replaced by utter exasperation. Since move-in, there have been bedbug infestations, countless winter nights without heat, and days without hot water; she has been harassed, presented with eviction notices, and has fought multiple battles in court.
Ms. Sharp’s situation, unfortunately, is not an anomaly. It represents larger, systemic problems that are undoing New York’s affordable housing community from within.
Rebecca Sharp had suspected that she was not receiving sufficient heat for some time, but she always chalked it up to drafty windows and poor insulation. Ironically, it was only when the heat was actually on that she fully grasped the conditions in which had been living.
It was during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in late 2012, when Sharp noticed that her entire apartment was warm, a feeling that, oddly enough, she realized she was unfamiliar with. Her landlord, stranded in Queens during the storm, had no way to get to Washington Heights to mess with the boiler, giving tenants a rare respite from the cold. Three days later, however, Sharp’s landlord arrived and, sure enough, the warmth receded.
“At that point I really realized that he is just a totally abusive person,” Sharp said. “Before that I always rationalized, ‘Oh, maybe it’s true, maybe the boiler is broken…’ that was the last straw.”
Sharp and her fellow tenants began looking for avenues that could improve their situation. What they encountered was a bureaucratic maze.
“The [city agency] websites are pretty confusing, to say the least,” Sharp said. “It takes a lot of tenacity…to get to what you need. The city’s overwhelmed and inundated.”
“I can only imagine how difficult it is to come from a different country where you don’t speak the language,” Sharp, a native English speaker said, in reference to the many Hispanic tenants in her building. “Because I know how weird it was coming to New York from New Zealand,…a very first-world, very privileged kind of place to live.”
Like many New Yorkers, Sharp and her peers eventually turned to 311, issuing complaint after complaint. Their landlord danced around HPD investigations, making temporary changes to the temperature to avoid fines. Sharp, observing this pattern, looked to create a tenant advocacy organization for her building, with the hope of eventually taking her landlord to court. But her fellow tenants were reluctant, rattled by the landlord’s intimidation tactics.
“People are too afraid,” Sharp said. “They’re afraid to make waves because they don’t know what the landlord is capable of doing. And our landlord has historically shown that he’s capable of all kinds of things that seem completely inhumane.”
Sharp took things into her own hands. She put flyers in her building detailing tenants’ rights, documented violations in their apartments, recruited lawyers to look into her case, and finally was able to form a cohesive tenant organization.
That’s when the eviction notices started. Sharp’s landlord claimed that her apartment, after 12 years, was suddenly no longer eligible for rent-stabilization, meaning her recent rent payments were too low. On these grounds, he was attempting to evict Sharp for non-payment. It was a claim that, though groundless, took time and energy to deal with.
“That’s what I realized throughout this whole thing, is how many people fall prey to these people and the intimidation tactics,” Sharp said. “I think he was just hoping I wouldn’t have the money. And a lot of people wouldn’t.”
Sharp entered a prolonged legal battle and, because she was representing herself, had to repeatedly take time off from work. Some days her landlord wouldn’t even show up to court, forcing procedural postponements and more headaches.
“A lot of people go through there [housing court] who don’t know their rights,” Sharp said. “I’m sure a lot of people just end up on the street.”
In the midst of this battle, Sharp and the tenant association were gradually building a case of their own, centered around poor building maintenance, lack of heat and hot water, and the particularly egregious treatment of Victoria, an elderly tenant in their building.
“She hadn’t had a working oven in 23 years,” Sharp said. “There were huge holes in the top of the stove that had worn away, and you could see the pilot light through them. I mean it was dangerous.”
The tenant association brought a compelling case before a court attorney, but walked away with mixed results. Sharp was told that if her landlord doesn’t supply heat and/or hot water in the future, he will be held in contempt of court. That, however, would require further legal proceedings to prove.
Since the case was closed, little has changed. This winter, Sharp says, inadequate heat has been prevalent.
“I was putting the oven on to stay warm,” Sharp said. “And that’s terrible, it’s dangerous, it gives you a headache…And I’m wearing my Ugg boots, I mean I’m wrapped up warm in the house and I hate being that cold in my own home.”
“You just go into survival mode, you’re just trying to stay warm, and that becomes your sole focus,” Sharp continued. “What can I do in three seconds when I’m out of bed? Because often bed’s the only warm place.”
Today, Sharp continues to document her landlord’s heating code violations, maintaining a meticulous log with the help of a Heat Seek sensor. Because her landlord often shuts off the hot water during the summer, Sharp has also begun videotaping herself taking hourly temperature readings while holding a thermometer under the faucet, simultaneously running a stopwatch to demonstrate just how long - if ever - it takes for the hot water to appear.
“It’s too much to expect people to have jobs, to look after their families, and to be able to create a heat log of the temperature inside, outside, and the time, every hour in their apartment,” Sharp said. “It’s just not feasible, it’s ridiculous. But that’s what you have to do to prove what’s happening.”
Sharp, along with hundreds of other New Yorkers, will again receive a Heat Seek sensor this fall, as part of our first large-scale deployment. Heat Seek aims to repair a broken system of reporting and provide tenants like Ms. Sharp with the evidence they need to successfully advocate for themselves in housing court. She, for one, is excited about the product’s capabilities.
“It’s amazing,” Sharp said. “When I heard about the heat sensor I was just so happy, because I think it’s going to help so much.”
Insufficient heat and hot water is a widespread problem in New York City that can be eradicated. It is a crisis that disproportionately affects low-income New Yorkers and creates serious health concerns, particularly for children and the elderly. For Sharp, it’s an issue that can no longer be tolerated.
“You’re getting up, you’re working hard for $15 dollars an hour, maybe?” Sharp said. “And then you’re paying your rent to somebody who has no regard for you as a human being and doesn’t give you heat or hot water. It’s crazy.”
Heat Seek is expanding. To help provide Heat Seek sensors to Rebecca and tenants like her, please donate here. Donations are tax deductible.
NYC BigApps 2015 is here! The country’s premier civic tech competition kicked off last night in grand style at Civic Hall, a new community and co-working space for civic tech startups in Manhattan’s Flatiron District (and Heat Seek’s home base).
Photo via @mbmlotek.
A packed crowd of developers, entrepreneurs, and tech enthusiasts were treated to a flurry of speeches from New York City’s digital elite. Eric Gertler, master of ceremonies and Executive Vice-President at NYCEDC, was joined by Microsoft’s John Farmer, NYC’s Chief Digital Officer Jessica Singleton, and a bevy of other leaders in the civic tech space, each emphasizing how BigApps can help turn an idea into a product or tool that makes a tangible impact in NYC.
Our favorite speaker, however, (and we swear we’re not biased) was Heat Seek’s very own Executive Director Noelle Francois who discussed our wonderful experience at BigApps last year. As Noelle pointed out, the mentorship before, during, and after the competition was unparalleled, and critical to Heat Seek’s success. Heat Seek was able to form a diverse team of professionals, recruit advisors, and build relationships with the government and the community, all in less than six months. These long-term partnerships have paid off: this fall, we are prepared to put 120 of our sensors in 40 buildings across NYC, and we have no plans of slowing down.
If you have a great idea that has the potential to help everyday New Yorkers, we encourage you to submit an application to BigApps before the October 14th deadline. Also, if you have any questions about the competition, feel free to follow us on Twitter and shoot us a message.
Thanks and good luck!
Daniel, one of our Heat Seek team members, recently attended the Open Data Science Conference in Boston. This conference, a crossroads for technologists and data scientists committed to open-source tools, was a great opportunity to learn from leading data scientists about new techniques and technologies for extracting knowledge from data.
As a non-profit, Heat Seek has to do much with limited resources. As our last blog posts have shown, we’re digging into New York City’s open data to discover new patterns and trends in housing and heating. Open source machine-learning libraries like Scikit-Learn, which was covered extensively at the conference, will be very helpful in helping us get at these insights and make a compelling case to policy makers and funders.
Additionally, there were more theoretical talks by leading engineers and professors on the conceptual side of data science. Wes McKinney, of pandas fame, spoke to an overflowing room about the goals and future directions of the ubiquitous DataFrame, while David Epstein spoke about the challenges of feature engineering, and why this aspect of data science is one of the most subtle and important. It can be tempting to jump head-first into a dataset and start training models — talks like these remind us that moving thoughtfully and deliberately through a problem is often the key to finding impactful insights.
Finally, the conference hosted numerous speakers who are hard at work on their own projects to fight injustice. Eric Schles, a data scientist and NYU professor, spoke about his work with the New York City’s District Attorney’s office, using open-source tools to detect human trafficking and bring traffickers to justice. Working to ease the burdens of our most vulnerable populations can seem overwhelming — it’s valuable and encouraging to learn from others committed to the fight for social justice.
All in all, it was a great conference and we are glad that someone from the team was able to attend. We look forward to keeping in touch with the organizers and attending their future events!
This week we’re looking at single vs repeat complaints, and trying to get a sense of the patterns we’re seeing in the data.
One of our driving questions is whether the complaints we’re seeing represent single incidents — like a boiler breaking once during the course of a winter — or chronic heating problems that may be indicative of larger issues like tenant harassment or, at the very least, negligent landlords. And while the data will never reveal intent, we believe we can find good proxies within the data for what appears to be long-term tenant harassment through the withholding of heat.
We started by breaking out 311 heating complaint data into buildings with single vs. repeat complaints during the 2014-2015 winter. And the takeaway is clear — in the majority of buildings with heat/hot water issues, tenants are calling 311 multiple times before the problem is resolved.
That makes sense. It’s rare that heating issues affect a single apartment, so when the heat goes out, everyone in the building has skin in the game. HPD sends a building inspector every time a complaint is received, but often, landlords with bad intentions withhold heat sporadically all winter long.
To get a better sense of the severity of the issue, we looked at the total number of complaints coming from unique buildings. We sorted the data into buildings with a single complaint, buildings with two complaints, 3-5 complaints, 6-10 complaints, 11-100 complaints, and greater than 100 complaints. Astoundingly, there were actually buildings with greater than 100 complaints last heat season — 181 buildings across the city.
Buildings with 100+ heat/hot water complaints suggest a chronic problem. Yes, the size of the building (a stat not included in HPD’s dataset) will influence the number of complaints submitted. And yes, we realize in rare cases tenants are calling 311 repeatedly because they are frustrated. But 100+ complaints is almost inconceivable, and suggests a serious, ongoing problem. Trust us when we say, tenants have better things to do than sit around filing 311 complaints all day.
We believe — and both the data and our experience with Heat Seek users confirm — that a small number of “bad actor” landlords across the city are withholding heat as a method of tenant harassment. We believe this is particularly true in gentrifying neighborhoods where rents are rising quickly and landlords have strong incentives to get rent stabilized tenants out. Next week we’ll post an interview detailing one Heat Seek user’s years-long experience fighting for adequate heat.