Housing Rights Civic Tech Competition Winners Announced

Heat Seek, winner of the NYC[x] Co-Labs Housing Rights Challenge, operates by using sensors around the apartment or home to detect the temperature. The sensors and temperature logs help provide proof that a landlord or property owner is not providing legally required heating to tenants. Image Credit: Heat Seek, www.heatseek.org/explore-the-tech

NYC[x] Co-Labs challenge hopes to address housing rights of NYC’s most vulnerable communities. On November 12, 2020, the New York Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the NYC Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants, and the communities of Inwood and Washington Heights announced the winners and the honorable mentions for the NYC[x] Co-Labs Housing Rights Challenge. This challenge invited innovative and tech-enabled solutions to address the housing rights of New York City’s most vulnerable communities. Submissions were solicited from startups, technologists, and innovators from across the globe. To read more about the competition, click here. The winners of the Housing Rights Challenge are Heat Seek and Justfix.nyc with an honorable mention going to 3×3.

Housing Rights Challenge

The NYC[x] Co-Labs: Housing Rights Challenge emerged from a series of workshops with community experts from Washington Heights and Inwood. In August 2018, the NYC[x] Co-Labs Program engaged with 35 Inwood and Washington Heights residents, representatives of community-based organizations, entrepreneurs, and educators in a series of workshops on housing, education, health, arts and culture, small businesses, and immigrant affairs to identify priority issues in the community. To complete this process, they utilized six one-on-one interviews with local healthcare professionals and stakeholders, one workshop with local tenant organizers, 191 relevant data points from the OneNYC challenge survey, expert interviews, a literature review, and participatory workshops with NYC City agencies.

The NYC[x] Co-Labs, originally known as the Neighborhood Innovation Labs, located in Inwood and Washington Heights in Manhattan and Brownsville in Brooklyn, is a partnership between the Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer and NYC Economic Development Corporation. The program was announced as partof the White House’s “Smart Cities Initiative” in 2015 and brings people together through various events, workshops, and community spaces to accelerate research and development of new technologies that can improve city life. One of the strongest aspects of the program is the Community Tech Board, which is composed of service providers, advocates, tech professionals, academia, government agencies, and community leaders at each NYC[x] Co-Labs site. The Community Tech Board uses their expertise to identify and research community priorities.


As the winners, Heat Seek and Justfix.nyc will each received $20,000 and the opportunity to pilot test their solutions in Inwood and Washington Heights. The winners will also gain exposure to the networks of NYC city agencies and receive guidance and support through the monitoring, evaluation, design, and implementation of the pilot project.

Since their founding, Heat Seek has played a role as a tech start-up and a mission driven non-profit seeking out areas in which lack of evaluable data leaves the city unable to enforce its laws effectively. Heat Seek focuses on building low-cost, well-connected temperature sensors and a web application to help tenants prove serious and persistent lack of heat in their apartments. For the contest, Heat Seek submitted temperature sensors and data analysis to help New York City tenants and organizers collect actionable data to back up heat complaints to advocate for safe and fair living conditions. During the winter, lack of heat is the top complaint filed with 311, but it is difficult to hold landlords accountable with this type of complaint. In the 2019–2020 winter season, Inwood and Washington Heights registered 11,954 heat complaints – the highest number of any area in New York City. Speaking on the win, Noelle Francis, Executive Director at Heat Seek, said: “We look forward to supporting the tenants, housing organizers, and legal service providers of Inwood and Washington Heights in asserting their right to affordable housing that is safe, healthy, and dignified. At a time when many of us are staying indoors due to Covid-19, no New Yorker should have to suffer through a winter in an underheated apartment. We’re ready to help our neighbors use cutting edge technology to gather the data they need to hold their bad landlords accountable and ensure that their homes remain a respite from the cold this winter.”

JustFix.nyc develops data-driven tools and technology that gives tenants and community advocates the resources to create safe and healthy homes for all New Yorkers. This technology is used to break barriers in the housing system and assist underrepresented tenants take action against landlord harassment, wrongful eviction, and other housing issues. Speaking on the win, Georges Clement, Executive Director of JustFix.nyc, said: “JustFix.nyc is honored to be a winner of the NYC[x] Co-Labs Housing Rights Challenge. The Challenge will support our mission to co-design tools to fight displacement, and make them more culturally accessible, relevant, and specific to the housing justice community in Inwood and Washington Heights. We look forward to leveraging this opportunity to protect tenants during an increasingly complicated time.”

The honorable mention went to 3×3 who designed a SMS-based tool to build capacity among community organizers and allow easy information sharing among community members facing housing issues. This tool included translation services, considerable space for community feedback and involvement, and does not require significant digital literary or training to be used.

By: Lynsey Smith (Lynsey is the CityLaw intern and a New York Law School student, Class of 2022.)


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