Noelle Francois (far right) at a talk at Northside Festival. (Photo Credit: Sam Gillette)

Noelle Francois (far right) at a talk at Northside Festival. (Photo Credit: Sam Gillette)

Mayor de Blasio announced today that his Tenant Harassment Prevention Task Force has made its first arrest, of a landlord who, among other things, stands accused of illegally depriving rent-regulated tenants of heat even as temperatures were below freezing. The indictment of Daniel Melamed for allegedly endangering the welfare of his tenants during winter renovations of his Crown Heights building “sends a clear signal to any unscrupulous landlords that they will be next,” De Blasio said. “And we’ll spare no effort in going out – going after those who are forcing New Yorkers out of their homes illegally.”

Those who are being victimized by such landlords have a new weapon in their arsenal: Heat Seek NYC, a non-profit organization that provides free heat sensors in order to gather data on temperatures in apartment buildings. The data can be used to combat heating code abuses by landlords and possibly inform housing policy.

The app’s creators hope to dissuade landlords from forcing out tenants by manipulating basic necessities such as access to gas and heat — a practice that often happens in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. “It’s not a coincidence that most of the heating complaints that are coming in are coming from those areas where the rents are drastically rising,” said Heat Seek’s executive director Noelle Francois, referring to the 210,000 heating complaints filed by 311 during 2013-14. (We met Noelle last week at Northside Festival, following a panel discussion about urban connectivity.)

Heat Seek NYC's cold map by area code.

Heat Seek NYC’s cold map by area code.

Though it has only been active for 13 months, Heat Seek has deployed 24 sensors in apartment buildings throughout Harlem, the Bronx and Bed-Stuy. In order to have maximum impact on combatting landlord harassment, Heat Seek targeted tenants who were already working with community housing organizations. Francois said they will create 120 sensors this summer, five times as many as last year, to be deployed this coming winter. Though Heat Seek’s data hasn’t been used in housing court to date, Francois expects it to happen next year.

She explained that Heat Seek was created to combat the challenges faced by tenants when collecting data – they’re required to record the indoor and outdoor temperature every hour on a log if they want to take their landlord to court. “It’s really difficult to get this data into housing court. Often the tenant isn’t represented, and the landlord is represented. So if the tenant is missing one reading or it isn’t 100 percent consistent then it’s pretty easy for the landlord’s lawyer to get that data thrown out.”

The sensors make the data collection much simpler. Sensors are scattered throughout each building and transmit the data to a hub with its own modem, which then sends the data to a private database to be accessed by tenants and their lawyers. The all-volunteer team (Francois is the only paid staffer) will work this summer on reliability and validity testing to make sure that all sensors are accurate within a degree of the actual temperature.

“If [the temperature] is right around the cutoff it’s likely the landlord knows what the cutoff is and is keeping it at that point,” she said. “What we’re seeing is some of these apartments are 40 or 50 degrees – it’s very cold. It’s nowhere near the [legal] threshold.”

There are also plans to trace income levels over the existing cold map created by Heat Seek. Then, not only will you be able to see what areas are reporting the most heat issues, but you’ll be able to see what types of residents are affected. Heat Seek will hopefully continue to be a tool to fight injustice, but Francois explained their goal is not to target landlords. “It’s really about providing data to tell what the temperature is, which can be extremely helpful for landlords,” she said, adding that some landlords have reached out to Heat Seek in order to better be able to properly regulate the heat in their buildings.

If your landlord isn’t nearly as considerate and is instead trying to send you packing, Francois has some tips. She suggested that tenants file a complaint with 311 because they will investigate the issue. Be wary, though, as this is part of the cycle of frustration for tenants. Sometimes the landlord is notified there was a complaint, only to increase the heat just for the inspector’s visit. She also said it’s best to talk to your neighbors. If they’re experiencing heating problems as well, then organize a meeting in the building so the tenants can pursue action as a collective entity. Francois encouraged tenants to then connect with local community organizations, which already have an organized system to address contentions with landlords.

Francois hopes that Heat Seek will eventually have enough sensors to sell to individuals. Meanwhile, don’t bother contacting Heat Seek to see if you can get one. Instead, reach out to one of Heat Seek’s partners including 3415 Broadway Tenants Association, CASA and 930/940 Prospect Place Tenants Association – a list that will continue to expand.