New York, NY USA – November 3, 2022 : Fire trucks and an ambulance responding to an apartment fire on the second-to-top floor at the NYCHA Manhattanville Houses in Harlem, New York City. (Shutterstock)
New York, NY – In a new report, “Turn Up the Heat,” issued on the one-year anniversary of the tragic Twin Parks fire in the Bronx, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander finds significant shortcomings in the City’s efforts to address heat complaints from tenants, especially in the chronically coldest buildings. While the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s (HPD) interventions (e.g. issuing violations, litigation, emergency repairs, and the new heat sensor program) are effective in addressing heat complaints, HPD too often fails to apply them.
The report identified 1,077 buildings where tenants made more than five heat complaints every winter from 2017 through 2021. Although these were just 1.5% of buildings that originated complaints, they made up nearly a third of all heat complaints over those five years. However, of these 1,077 buildings with the most persistent heat issues, more than one quarter (274 buildings) saw no enforcement action of any kind from HPD.
Overall, tenants living in 70,766 privately-owned residential buildings made a total of 814,542 heat complaints between 2017 and 2021. During this five-year period, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) issued just 21,610 violations to landlords who failed to maintain the minimum-required temperature. In 80% of these buildings, a significant number of complaints did not recur the following year, suggesting that problems were addressed.
Heat complaints and violations were predominantly concentrated in communities of color. The five community districts with the highest volume of 311 complaints related to a lack of heat are 93% people of color on average. The five districts with the most violations issued average 89% people of color.
“The City must turn up the heat on landlords who leave their tenants in the cold,” said Comptroller Brad Lander. “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.”
The Comptroller’s report arrives on the one-year anniversary of the fire at the tragic Twin Parks development in the Bronx that took the lives of 17 New Yorkers and injured dozens more. Between 2017 and 2021, portable heaters caused over 100 fires in New York City residential buildings like the one that sparked the Twin Parks fire. Living without heat for an extended period can lead to a serious decline in tenants’ mental and physical health, and residents will often turn to unsafe methods, such as portable heaters, to keep themselves and their families warm.
The report found that when deployed, the City’s enforcement strategies for addressing heat complaints are generally effective. Issuing violations to a building correlated to a 47% average drop in the number of heat complaints in the following heat season, and litigation correlated to a 45% average drop in the number of heat complaints in the following year. However, during this five-year period, HPD issued violations for failure to provide an adequate supply of heat for just 3% of heat complaints.
The Comptroller’s report includes a set of recommendations, including an expansion of HPD’s Heat Sensor Program to cover all buildings with persistent heat complaints. Established by City Council legislation in 2020, the Heat Sensor Program resulted in the largest decline in heat-related complaints in the years after heat sensors were installed. However, the program only currently covers 50 buildings, and enforcement of compliance with the program has been limited.
Additional recommendations of the report include:
- Using data & technology to inform and prioritize inspections with a focus on buildings with persistent heat complaints;
- Allowing tenants in buildings with a history of persistent heat complains to schedule inspections so that inspectors arrive and can gain access when heat issues are present;
- Conducting comprehensive site inspections jointly with HPD and DOB and identifying landlords’ willingness to address persistent building systems problems;
- Expanding proactive code enforcement and targeted escalation;
- Expanding multilingual outreach to tenants;
- Passing good cause eviction protections so tenants can exercise their rights.
“The findings of the comptroller further proves that the city needs to revamp its system in dealing with heat complaints. The tragic fire that happened at Twin Parks North West is a prime example of what happens when there is a lack of accountability, negligence, hence enforcement. Proposing, or even passing bills to deal with the heat issues are always a good start, but I emphasize that there has to be a system that is strict on enforcement. Intentional enforcement is the key, so that tragedies as the likes of Twin Parks North West never happen again,” said Salim Drammeh, President of the Gambian Youth Organization (GYO).
“As we recognize the 1-Year anniversary of one of our city’s deadliest fires, this report is a tragic reminder that more must be done to ensure our residents, regardless of their race or zip-code, have access to adequate heating during the winter months,” said Bronx Borough President Vanessa L. Gibson. “I want to thank Comptroller Brad Lander for highlighting these inequities and I look forward to working with him and my other colleagues in government to push for policy changes that would eliminate systemic barriers to New Yorkers accessing their fundamental right to heating in our city.”
“The Twin Parks fire broke the hearts of our city, and it was far from the only tragic fire we experienced. This report raises important questions and it is clear more must be done to keep tenants warm during winter and not using haphazard, dangerous heating solutions,” said State Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris.
“The report from the Office of New York City Comptroller Brad S. Lander further highlights the lack of heat in residential rental buildings affecting tenants in districts like the one I represent. This issue goes unpunished due to inadequate near-time enforcement, and as such, landlords often prefer to pay the occasional fine rather than provide proper heat. Some landlords use third-party software providers to alert them once a 311 complaint has been made and “adjust” the heat before HPD arrival. As a result, tenants suffer, become ill, and medical conditions are exacerbated. The current system is rigged against tenants, and while the city has strong laws in place, it is important it follows through with strategic enforcement to ensure that everyone has access to safe and dignified living conditions,” said State Senator Robert Jackson.
“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,” said State Senator Julia Salazar. “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.”
“As Comptroller Lander’s report makes clear, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) is giving far too many New Yorkers the cold shoulder during heat season,” said Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal (D/WF -Manhattan), Chair of the New York State Assembly Committee on Housing. “Though tenants have filed nearly one million heat complaints over the years with HPD, the City routinely fails to respond or issue violations, forcing tenants to don extra clothes and jeopardize their safety by relying on space heaters to survive New York City winters. This is unacceptable — New Yorkers deserve a system that prioritizes enforcement and holds serial bad actors accountable for creating hazardous conditions. I look forward to working alongside my City colleagues to tackle this burning issue.”
“Over the holidays temperatures in the city plummeted to dangerous lows. Not only is can the cold itself be harmful, the steps tenants may be forced to take to heat their homes in the absence of working building systems can have tragic consequences, as we have seen. Too often, communities of color bear the burden. Comptroller Lander’s report lays out clear strategies we can implement now to ensure New Yorkers live in healthy and dignified homes. I look forward to our continued work helping New York’s tenants,” said Assemblymember Harvey Epstein.
“As we remember today 17 beautiful lives lost too soon at Twin Parks Northwest, we must recommit to doing all we can to ensure the safety of New Yorkers in their homes. With only 21,610 violations filed in the face of over 800,000 heat complaints logged to 311 between 2017-2021, this important report by the NYC Comptroller highlights how far we must come in order to keep New Yorkers safe and warm within their homes. We have robust data in the city of New York to deploy to keep families safe, and I look forward to incorporating findings of this report in negotiations for Introduction 434, which would expand the heat sensor program, and beyond. The housing crisis we face is not just one of supply, but one of protecting our existing three (3) million residential units as safe, quality homes for New Yorkers. As the report demonstrates, the vast majority of New Yorkers facing abysmal housing quality conditions are low-income, people of color, like my constituents, putting housing quality in the cross hairs is a matter of racial justice,” said Council Member Pierina Sanchez, Chair of the Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee.
“The findings of the Comptroller’s report underscores one of the biggest facets of our housing crisis” said Council Member Alexa Avilés, Chair of the Council’s Committee on Public Housing. “Depravation of heat has long been used by nefarious landlords to punish tenants or to force displacement. Our responsibility in government is to hold these bad actors and the agencies responsible for protecting New Yorkers accountable. The Comptroller makes common sense recommendations such as the use of data driven inspections, the ability for residents to schedule appointments at buildings with persistent reports of heating issues, and actually carrying out enforcement. I hope this report spurs HPD to aggressively implement reform. Our residents have suffered long enough!”
“It is unconscionable that as a matter of course a landlord would not heat apartments where people live, which is happening at an alarming rate. In 2013, I passed Local Law 6, which enabled HPD to issue administrative orders to landlords forcing them to fix underlying conditions that cause leaks and mold. A New York State licensed engineer has to certify that underlying conditions are fixed before the order can be lifted, and failure to comply with the order carries steep fines. As recommended in the report, I will introduce an amendment to Local Law 6 to give HPD the authority to issue administrative orders to correct underlying conditions that are causing the heat violations in addition to leaks and mold. I look forward to working with Comptroller Brad Lander and my colleagues to ensure that adequate heat is provided to all tenants,” said Council Member Gale Brewer, Chair of the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations.
“One year after the Twin Parks Fire, it’s critical that the City takes every step it can to prevent future tragedies. The thoughtful recommendations laid out in the Comptroller’s report provide a policy roadmap for how we can protect and empower tenants moving forward,” said Council Member Shahana Hanif, Chair of the Council’s Immigration Committee.
“The Comptroller’s report exposes a serious problem in our City, making clear that the policies and interventions currently in place to ensure our communities are kept warm during the winter months do not come close to meeting the standards New Yorkers deserve. When nearly one million of our neighbors tell us they have insufficient heat during the winter season and just 3% of those complaints are addressed in any meaningful way, we are failing—simply put. We also see in these findings, unsurprisingly, that the neighborhoods with the most heat complaints and the least amount of enforcement are our Black and brown communities and low-income communities. We shouldn’t continue to expect New Yorkers to have faith in the services we’re meant to provide, if we routinely miss the mark. Accountability matters, and we should heed the Comptroller’s recommendations to bolster our systems of enforcement, expand proactive code enforcement, and provide our communities with information about the rights to which they’re entitled. Inaction is not an option,” said Council Member Crystal Hudson, Chair of the Council’s Committee on Aging.
“As we have seen in recent history, ignoring tenants’ heating complaints doesn’t just hurt our families who have to suffer through cold winter days, it can also lead to devastating tragedies like the Twin Parks fire last year. As a former housing attorney, I know tenants’ rights on paper are only as good as their enforcement in real life. This data by Comptroller Lander is vital and will go a long way to helping the City target enforcement against the worst landlords who cause the most harm,” said Council Member Shekar Krishnan.
“All New Yorkers have a right to heat and this report published by Comptroller Brad Lander highlights major disparities that are mainly prevalent in communities of color. Tragedies like the Twin Parks Development fire demonstrate a clear need for deliberate and vigorous efforts to hold landlords accountable for a failure to maintain the minimum required temperature. This also directly impacts my district as my office has received countless complaints from tenants as they do not have access to heat. While I am proud to have introduced and passed Int 0208-2022, a local law in relation to inspections of self-closing doors and fire safety notices in residential buildings, there is still more work to be done. I am hopeful that the Comptroller’s findings and recommendations will provide the City with the information needed to combat this systematic issue,” said Council Member Nantasha Williams, Chair of the Council’s Civil Rights Committee.
“ANHD commends Comptroller Lander for this important report revealing the extent of heat code violations, which threaten the safety of too many New Yorkers, and most often tenants of color. Rampant code violations are of top concern to ANHD and our members, which is why we demand that the City increase proactive code enforcement and enact stronger penalties to ensure housing quality and safety. We applaud the Comptroller for elevating this issue so we can work to make sure New Yorkers live in safe and secure housing conditions,” said Barika X. Williams, Executive Director, Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD).
“Every New Yorker deserves to have full, reliable and safe heating in their homes, but the reality is that far too many people – especially low-income New Yorkers of color – continue to suffer without heat each winter. If we want to prevent another tragedy like the Twin Parks fire, New York City must get serious about building code enforcement and crack down on landlords who leave their tenants in the cold,” said David R. Jones, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Community Service Society of New York.
“Tenants who reside in a building with a history of heat issues or who currently live with inadequate heating deserve to have immediate inspections for these to be remedied. The process of calling 311 and getting an inspector to their building and assess must be easier. Tenants should have more of a role in this process and we need better enforcement toward ensuring all tenants are warm during the winter,” said Alex Lee and Illapa Sairitupac, tenant organizers at Cooper Square Committee.
“The city’s antiquated inspection system relies exclusively on in person visits by HPD inspectors taking a temperature reading at a single point in time, capturing only 3% of potential heating violations as they occur as a result. This practice no longer makes sense in the 21st century. The technology exists to know exactly what the temperature is inside every apartment in a building at all times. HPD should be using the full force of widely available, low cost technology to identify bad actor landlords who fail to adequately heat their buildings. Tenants are needlessly suffering in dangerous conditions or being driven from their homes altogether when chronic heating issues aren’t resolved,” said Noelle Francois, Executive Director at Heat Seek.
“St Nicks Alliance thanks the NYC Comptroller Lander for shedding light on this issue. Each winter, a large number of low-income North Brooklyn residents come to our office reporting lack of heat and hot water, and although the City of New York had made progress enforcing these violations there still more to be done. To the tenants suffering from lack of heat and hot water our message is, you are not alone, St Nicks Alliance is here to help,” said Rolando Guzman, Deputy Director for Community Preservation at St. Nicks Alliance.
The “Turn Up The Heat” report and recommendations to strength New York City’s heat laws are available here.