The heat’s out...again

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. 

Stay tuned.