Living Without Heat: An Interview with Rebecca Sharp


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.