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What to do if your NYC apartment doesn’t have heat or hot water

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New Year’s resolution: Keep your place warm

Winter, and its occasional brutal cold snaps, has officially arrived, which may have you wondering when the heat in your apartment is going to come on, if it hasn’t already.

According to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), “heat season” has been here for quite some time: Between October 1 and May 31, New York City landlords are required to ensure that apartments are reasonably heated. Here’s the official word:

Day: Between the hours of 6:00am and 10:00pm, if the outside temperature falls below 55 degrees, the inside temperature is required to be at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Night: Between the hours of 10:00pm and 6:00am, the inside temperature is required to be at least 62 degrees Fahrenheit.

Landlords must also provide hot water, “365 days per year at a constant minimum temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Of course, that’s not always the case: Every year, there were tens of thousands of heat complaints, including a whopping 21,894 in one week in 2018 (and there’s regularly a backlog of complaints that HPD has not yet addressed).

If your heat isn’t working, you may be tempted to ride the deep freeze out under a big blanket, but you do have rights—here’s what you need to know.

My heat isn’t working—what should I do?

If you think you’re not being provided with adequate heat, the first thing to do is call your landlord and make sure they know what’s going on. That may well be enough to get the problem fixed, but if not, there are other steps you can take.

It’s useful to record the temperature in your apartment using an indoor/outdoor thermometer. (You can find plenty on Amazon.) If you find that it’s consistently below the required temperature, be sure to 1) lodge a 311 complaint, and 2) write it down!

The Met Council on Housing has a handy sheet that you can use to track your history of complaints, temperature changes, and any witnesses to those two things. HPD also has a database where you can see the complaints made against landlords.

The Met Council also recommends the following:

  • Get other tenants in your building to lodge 311 complaints, because there’s strength in numbers!
  • If your landlord isn’t responding to phone calls, send them a certified letter (and request a return receipt) noting the problem; that way, you have official proof of your complaint.

The Met Council notes that the city can, in theory, provide heat if landlords will not, but don’t count on it:

The city’s Emergency Repair Department may supply your heat if the landlord does not. But don’t wait for this! It’s rare for the city to intervene in this manner, but assistance from your local elected officials can help in this process.

If a boiler’s fuel tank is empty, tenants have the right to buy their own fuel after 24 hours of no heat and no response from the landlord. However, this provision does not apply if the boiler is broken and needs both repairs and fuel.

What happens after I make a 311 complaint?

Here’s what HPD says:

If a tenant files a 311 complaint related to heat or hot water, HPD attempts to notify the building owner or managing agent and may also attempt to contact the tenant to see whether service has been restored. If service has not been restored, an HPD inspector will go to the building to verify the complaint and issue the appropriate violation.

Landlords may also be subject to fines (ranging from $250 to $1,000) if they do not respond to HPD violations, depending on how severe the violation and how long it has been since it was issued.

I called 311, there are open violations, and nothing has happened—now what?

If the problem escalates to the point where you have to take legal action, your best bet is to find a lawyer who specializes in tenants’ rights, and go from there.

Per the Met Council, tenants who live in apartments that are rent-regulated—and thus, regulated by the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal—can also lodge complaints through that agency.

And remember: any action like withholding rent or going on a rent strike should be taken under the advisement of legal counsel.