A app that helps tenants stay warm all winter

Lack of heat is consistently the number one complaint during a New York City winter. In 2015, the city we received more than 200,000 heat related complaints mostly from lower income neighborhoods, but these tenants now have a tech-savvy ally. Heat Seek is a mobile app and a sensor that collects and graphs temperature data helping tenants hold their landlords accountable and to stay warm.

TRANSCRIPT

Lack of heat is consistently the number-one complaint during a New York City winter.

In 2015, the city received more than 200,000 heat-related complaints, mostly from lower-income neighborhoods.

But these tenants now have a tech-savvy ally.

Heat Seek is a mobile app and a sensor that collects and graphs temperature data, helping tenants hold their landlords accountable and to stay warm.

Heat Seek's director of programs, Anthony Damelio, is with us now.

So, first of all, how can what this box has in it help a tenant hold their landlord accountable?

Sure.

So, tenants who have trouble getting their heat turned on in the winter often turn to public-interest attorneys or community organizers, who then reach out to us, or we have a relationship already with them.

And they get a temperature sensor installed free of cost to them.

So, we're a nonprofit.

We have a certain number of these, and we build partnerships with community organizations and go out and install sensors in apartments of tenants who have trouble getting their heat turned on.

So, this box sits on their floor or sits in their house somewhere, and then the other part is basically sending that information back to you?

So, this is the actual sensor itself.

It's a thermistor on the side.

This gets mounted in this black box and stuck on the wall about three feet up around the place where the city inspects temperature readings.

And it wakes up once an hour.

Sends its reading to this device here, which is a Raspberry Pi, a mini computer.

These two XB radios talk to each other, and then the readings get sent over the Internet through this on-board Internet connection to our online app, where they get compressed and matched with external temperature readings for that location and for that hour to spit out into a graph and a temperature log, which displays very clearly when the building would be in violation of New York City housing code.

New York City housing code says that if it's a certain temperature outside, it still needs to be a certain temperature inside.

Correct.

Yeah, from October 1st through the end of May each year, if the temperature falls 55 degrees or below, it must be 68 degrees or above inside during the daytime, from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

And overnight, if it falls below 45 degrees outside, it must be at least 55 degrees inside.

So, landlords are not keeping the heat on to, what, save money?

Yeah.

So, about 50%, the city says, are landlords who just make a mistake, one-time offenders.

The boiler breaks, something happens, and then they go and fix it.

The other 50% is a mix of sort of your traditional slumlord, who just wants to avoid providing services to save money.

And then sort of a new development that we've seen since the housing crash are predatory landlords -- so, folks who are withholding heat and using any other way they can to drive out rent-regulated tenants so that they can bring those apartments up to market rate and make a bunch more money.

How much would it cost to actually make one of these?

This is a pretty simple idea, and hopefully it catches on and spreads from not just this city but lots of other places.

Sure, yeah.

So, these are relatively simple devices, but they're not consumer-grade right now.

So, the cell is sort of around $30, depending on quantity.

And this unit is around $70.

So, these were made about three years ago from a volunteer team.

So, the technology has changed since then.

So, if we were to build them today, we would probably use some different parts.

And we're looking at a redesign this upcoming winter to see if we can bring the costs down even further.

Is it part of a larger movement about social justice, where the technology industry can help?

Sure.

The Internet of Things is a really hot topic right now.

So, it's devices that are used in the home that are connected to your wider system.

The Nest is a great example of that, or refrigerators that you can track on your cellphone.

But we believe that technology should be leveraged not just for folks who can afford expensive devices, like you and me, but for the wider population, who may need technology to solve some of their most pressing problems, like lack of heat, lack of hot water, or other sorts of abuses in the home.

What have you learned from doing this, now that you've been doing this two or three years now?

You're in a number of buildings in New York.

Sure.

We've learned that technology is not a panacea.

It's not going to sort of come on the scene and radically transform the system.

But it's a useful tool for the players who already exist, whether that is the city or whether that is community advocates who work alongside tenants.

We've learned that humans are complicated animals who don't always know how to use data and who aren't used to systems like this -- housing-court judges, for example, who never come across things like this and who just need to be educated about how the technology works to ensure that it's providing reliable data.

This is a verifiable fact that can be used in a court against a landlord, saying, 'Here's all the history I have of what the temperature's been in my apartment day after day after day.

And, by the way, here's the weather data and how cold it was outside all those days.'

Yeah, so, lawyers have used our data in settlements with landlords' attorneys last winter.

Most cases get settled outside of court and don't go to a trial.

Our hope is that this winter we'll find one attorney who really wants to drive it through with a good case so that it might be admitted as evidence in housing court.

All right.

Anthony Damelio with Heat Seek.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you so much.