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!