A Kickstarter to Hold Stingy Landlords Accountable For Withholding Heat

The Heat Seek cell records the air temperature every hour.
The Heat Seek cell records the air temperature every hour.
Heat Seek via Kickstarter

Veraline McFarlane has lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years, but this past winter was uncommonly brutal for the Crown Heights resident. She had to use her oven and three space heaters to try to warm the place up. Her electric bill more than doubled in the process, but she says, "I'm asthmatic, I cannot sleep without heat."

It hasn't always been this bad; McFarlane traces the problems to the moment her new landlord bought the building two years ago. "Since this landlord took over the building, we go days without heat. And when it does come on, he gives you ten, fifteen minutes in the morning; ten, fifteen minutes in the evening."

This past winter, temperatures often fell into the low 40s inside her home, far below the 55-degree threshold mandated by law. And 55 degrees is just the night threshold: landlords are required to keep temperatures higher during the day -- 68 degrees, at least.

The Urban Justice Center initiated a suit against McFarlane's landlord back in November -- long before the winter of 2014 showed its teeth -- but, because of delays in the court system, the case didn't have its initial hearing until July 23, one of the hottest days of the year.

Heating season starts again on October 1, and the Urban Justice Center's Stephanie Rudolph says, "I would be shocked if we had a decision before then." (McFarlane's case was brought on behalf of tenants in two Crown Heights buildings, both owned by the same landlord.)

Part of the problem, Rudolph says, is the city's antiquated system for investigating potential violations. If a tenant calls 311 to complain about a lack of heat, the city first calls the landlord to report the complaint, then takes between 36 and 72 hours to dispatch an investigator to take a temperature reading. By that time, the landlord could turn up the heat or the outside temperature could increase on its own.

A tenant has to show multiple violations to have any hope of persuading a judge that they have a real problem. Right now tenants are asked to keep a handwritten temperature log, but even when they do, Rudolph says, the accuracy of those logs can be called into question in court.

"The current system just does not enforce the law," says William Jeffries, a developer who in February had the idea for a device that could keep landlords from gaming the system.

Jeffries' device is called Heat Seek, and Rudolph thinks it might have the potential to resolve cases like McFarlane's before they even go to court. Heat Seek has two parts, the cell and the hub. The cell takes a temperature reading every hour then sends it, via shortwave radio, to the hub. The hub is connected to the internet, where it records temperature readings, maps trends, and keeps track of the number of code violations. It even fills out logs identical to the ones used in court, but with more (and more accurate) data.

Heat Seek started as a school project for Jeffries, who was enrolled in a 12-week Ruby programming course at the Flatiron School at the time. Tristan Siegel, a classmate of Jeffries' and the son of a social worker, recognized the technology could be used to help New Yorkers keep heat logs. Together, they assembled a team around the project and entered it in New York's Big Apps competition where, in July, it was one of 23 projects singled out to receive continued funding, promotion and mentorship.

Now, Heat Seek has created a Kickstarter with the goal of raising enough money to put 1,000 heat seek sensors in New York apartments this winter.

It costs about $30 to make each cell, and $60 for each hub. (Multiple cells in one building can be connected to a single hub.) When you factor in the time it takes to dispatch an inspector, "three or four trips is going to be the cost of building the sensors anyway," says Jarryd Hammel, who is handling the business side of things for Heat Seek. "The existing system is not only less effective but also much more expensive."

So far, each device has been soldered by hand--they're all, as designer Daniel Kronovet jokes, "bespoke, artisanal devices crafted by hand right here in New York City"--but as soon as Heat Seek hit the $10,000 fundraising mark, the team was planning to start manufacturing on a larger scale.

They met that particular milestone over the holiday weekend, but the team still needs to raise an additional $40,000 to cover the cost of deploying 1,000 sensors this winter.

The Urban Justice Center and Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) have agreed to help distribute the devices in buildings where they are already investigating potential heating violations.

Ideally, Rudolph says, Heat Seek devices could help her clients bypass a trial altogether, getting their heat back a lot faster: "It would become evidence before trial, the landlord would see, 'Oh there's all this bad evidence against me, I may as well settle.'"

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