Heat Seek Blog

  1. 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.

    - JUL 20, 2015 -

  2. BigApps is back.

    🎶It’s the moooost wonderful time of the year…🎶

    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!

    - JUL 17, 2015 -

  3. Learning from the Data Science Community

    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!

    - JUL 15, 2015 -

  4. 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.

    - JUL 09, 2015 -