Startup Uses Temperature Sensors to Help Tenants Bring the Heat in Housing Court

December 2015

"It was freezing, almost to the point where you could the mist from your breath in your apartment." - Faheem Abdur-Razzaaq, Harlem Resident 

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HOST INTRO: Winter doesn’t officially start ‘til next week, but already the city is seeing an average of over 800 complaints a day from tenants who say they don’t have enough heat in their apartments. The law requires landlords to heat their buildings to a certain temperature based the time of day and on how cold it is outside. But for tenants who file heating complaints, it’s often hard to prove that their apartments are too cold. As Adrian Ma reports, a Brooklyn startup is using technology to try to help with that.

MA 1: It’s around eight o’clock on a recent Saturday night – one of the colder ones in an otherwise warm December.

JEFFRIES
This is sometimes the easiest time to get into people’s apartments, you know? (0:03) 

MA 2: William Jefferies is knocking on doors in an East Harlem high-rise. Next stop – Shirley Washington's place on the eleventh floor.

            (SOUND): Door unlocking, swinging open.

WASHINGTON
He’s here right now so let me call you right back … (0:04)

MA 3: Jeffries takes a small plastic box out of his backpack. It’s black and about the size of a deck of cards. And Washington asks, “What's that?”

JEFFRIES
It’s a temperature sensor. It just takes the temperature, that’s it.

WASHINGTON
Okay. (0:03)

MA 4:  Jeffries is one of the co-founders of Heat Seek, a tiny Brooklyn tech startup that makes the sensor. One of over a hundred the company’s deploying this winter as part of a pilot program to monitor buildings with a history of heating complaints.

JEFFRIES
Uh, can I put it over here? What’s this? (0:02)

MA 5: He places it on the table, flips a switch and says it’s ready to go. It’s connected to the internet and will take the temperature every hour while reporting any heating violations that occur. Jeffries says this kind of real-time data will be a big help to the city in enforcing the heating law.

JEFFRIES
The thing that is missing is that there isn’t data to actually prove exactly when the violations were. (0:06) 

MA 6: He says tenants CAN call 311 and ask for a heating inspector, but by the time they show up, the weather might be warmer or the landlord might’ve turned the heat up JUST long enough to avoid a citation. And while this cat-and-mouse game goes on, tenants can go for weeks without adequate heat. That’s what happened to Faheem Abdur-Razzaaq [fah-HEEM ab-DUR ruh-ZOCK]. Last January, while New York was being swallowed by the Polar Vortex, he says his apartment was ….

ABDUR-RAZZAAQ
… freezing, almost to the point where you can see the mist from your breath in your apartment. (0:04)

MA 7: On the coldest nights, he remembers having to SLEEP near his OVEN and leaving it cranked on all night to stay warm. 

ABDUR-RAZZAAQ
I had to turn it on for heat because I wouldn’t have been able to stay in my apartment if I didn’t do that. (0:05)

MA 8: When I ask him whether he told his landlord about it, he says, he did, several times.

MA
Do they just not believe you, or—

ABDUR-RAZZAAQ
No, I don’t think they don’t believe us. I think the real issue is they don’t live there. (0:07)

MA 9: Urban American is the company that manages his building. And a spokesperson there says, the company’s planning to make upgrades to the building’s heating system early next year. In the meantime, residents without heat can also go to housing court, but those cases can take weeks or even months to resolve. Adam Meyers is a lawyer at Brooklyn Legal Services, and he says …

MEYERS
One of the big problems you run into is, by the time you’re finally getting your trial with this judge, it’s no longer winter. (0:05)

MA 10: That’s why Meyers is currently working WITH Heat Seek to try out the sensors in clients’ apartments.

MEYERS
Assuming that a court finds that to be credible data, I think that could be a real game changer. (0:05)

MA 11: But not everyone is so enthusiastic about the sensors. Frank Ricci works for an organization that represents landlords. And he says, he’s concerned that the technology could be abused.

RICCI
If a tenant wanted to harass an owner with Heat Seek, what would stop the tenant from just putting it in the window sill and opening the window? (0:07)

MA 12: But Heat Seek says it’s main goal isn’t JUST to help tenants BRING the heat in housing court, but to KEEP the heat on at home. They’re hoping landlords will also find the sensors useful as a way to make sure they’re providing enough heat and avoid violations in the first place. Adrian Ma, Columbia Radio News. 

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