Comptroller’s Report Finds Chronic Lack of Heat Issues in Over 1,000 Buildings, Recommendations to Enhance City Response

Comptroller Brad Lander. Image Credit: Office of the Comptroller.

On January 9, 2023, the Office of Comptroller Brad Lander released a new report “Turn Up the Heat,” which reviews the City’s efforts in addressing chronic heat complaints. By law, from October 1 through May 31, landlords are required to maintain indoor temperatures at 68 degrees in the daytime when outdoor temperatures are below 55 degrees, and at least 62 degrees indoors at night, regardless of the outdoor temperature. Hot water must also be provided at 120 degrees year-round. When landlords fail to meet these requirements, tenants can file complaints with 311, which can result in interventions by city agencies. The new Comptroller’s report examines the effectiveness of these interventions and what the city can do to improve its response, especially for the worst offending buildings. 

From 2017 to 2021, 814,542 heat complaints were made in 70,766 buildings across the city. Of these, the report identified 1,077 buildings where tenants had made five or more heat complaints every year from 2017 through 2021. While these buildings were only 1.5 percent of the buildings where complaints originated from, these buildings consisted of almost one third of the overall heat complaints. 

The Department of Housing Preservation and Development has multiple intervention and enforcement methods available, including emergency repairs, issuing violations, litigation, and a heat sensor program. The heat sensor program, passed by the City Council in 2020, installed heat sensors in 50 buildings with heat violations to monitor temperatures in the living rooms of each unit unless a tenant opted out. The program saw a large decline in heat complaints in participating buildings, but there has been limited enforcement of compliance with the program. 

The report revealed that heat complaints declined when the City used other enforcement strategies. There was a 47 percent average drop in heat complaints from buildings that received heat violations in the prior year. Litigation against buildings resulted in a 45 percent average drop in complaints. The Emergency Repair program resulted in a 38 percent average drop in complaints. 

While the evidence supports some effectiveness of these methods, the report found that out of the 1,077 buildings with the most chronic issues, 274 had no enforcement actions. To address this failure to take action, the report provides several recommendations, including:

  • Provide data and technology to inform building inspectors of history of prior complaints and prioritize inspections for buildings with heat issues
  • Allow tenants in buildings with chronic issues to schedule inspections so inspectors can see conditions in a more timely manner
  • Joint site inspections with the Department of Buildings and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development
  • Expand the Heat Sensor Program to all buildings with ongoing heat issues, and improve enforcement (an expansion of the program is currently in front of the City Council through Int. 434 of 2022 by Council Member Pierina Ana Sanchez)
  • More use of the Emergency Repair Program in appropriate instances
  • Pass additional legislation increasing HPD penalties and requiring HPD to create an annual certification of correction watchlist
  • Educate tenants and provide multilingual outreach to inform tenants about their rights
  • Pass good cause eviction protections to help tenants exercise rights

The report was issued on the one-year anniversary of the Twin Parks fire in the Bronx, where a faulty space heater used to help heat an apartment ignited a fire that resulted in the deaths of 17 people, including eight children. From 2017 to 2021, space heaters caused over 100 fires in the city; but despite the possible dangers many tenants will still turn to portable heaters to keep their families warm when landlords fail to provide adequate heat. 

The report also highlighted that heating issues disproportionately impacted communities of color, a further inequity that puts the safety of New Yorkers at risk. The five community districts with the most 311 complaints filed were on average 93 percent people of color, and the five districts with the most issued violations were an average 89 percent people of color. 

To read the full report, click here

Comptroller Lander stated, “The City must turn up the heat on landlords who leave their tenants in the cold. The good news here is that our enforcement tools work: when HPD issues violations, sues landlords, does emergency repairs, or installs heat sensors – problems get fixed. But far too often, none of those actions take place even in buildings that are cold year, after-year, after-year. More strategic, data-informed enforcement and escalating penalties against landlords who repeatedly fail to provide heat are necessary to ensure safe and warm apartments for all New York City tenants.”

State Senator Julia Salazar stated, “The Comptroller’s timely report provides evidence to back what we already know is true—that tenants throughout the city, primarily people of color, are enduring persistent heat issues without successful avenues of recourse to help them remedy these violations. The NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development has an obligation to enforce heat standards and issue violations against landlords as needed. On the anniversary of the Twin Parks fire, it’s essential that we continue to hold landlords accountable for heat violations so that tenants are not forced to resort to the same unsafe heat options that caused the tragedy last year.”

By: Veronica Rose (Veronica is the CityLaw fellow and a New York Law School graduate, Class of 2018.)




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