Winter is here, but your heat is not. What can you do?

A lack of heat in a New York City apartment is a common, chronic problem. Tens of thousands of complaints about a lack of heat or hot water are filed with the city’s housing department every year, making it the single most common recorded problem for tenants. So far this heat season, the city received nearly 116,000 complaints, records show.

If you’re among that group, it’s your responsibility to push for a fix. Here are the steps to take, and how to take them, according to heat and housing experts — and a New Yorker with a cold apartment who successfully got his landlord to turn on the heat.

Are landlords required to provide heat? To what temperature?

The first thing to know is that it’s illegal to keep an apartment below a certain temperature in the winter in New York. Between October 1 and May 31, your landlord is legally required to stick to these rules:

  • If it’s less than 55 degrees outside during the day, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., the inside temperature of your apartment has to be above 68 degrees.
  • At night, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., your apartment has to be above 62 degrees, no matter the temperature outside.

And, all year round, landlords must provide hot water of at least 120 degrees out of the tap.

My apartment feels colder than that. What should I do?

A good first step is to check and make sure your apartment is below the legal temperature threshold. Andrea Shapiro, director of programs at the tenant advocacy group Met Council on Housing, suggests getting a cheap thermometer – “from the 99 cent store, it doesn’t need to be anything fancy,” Shapiro said – and take a few readings during the day and at night.

Write down the temperature inside your apartment, outside the building, and the time of day. With that information in hand, her advice is simple: Let your super or management company know about the problem right away, preferably in writing.

“A lot of people don’t do that and they wait until there’s a big problem, or they haven’t had heat for a long time,” Shapiro said. “The first day you don’t have heat, or the first time you notice there’s a problem with the heating system, tell someone — even if you know they’re not going to do anything.”

If you want to be extra sure your complaints are heard – and to have proof in case you need it in the future – send a letter to your landlord about the heat issue by certified mail, and keep a copy for yourself.

In the meantime, be very careful if you are using other heat sources to heat your apartment, like space heaters. Plug them directly into a wall outlet, don’t leave them unattended, and unplug them as you sleep. Never use a gas stove to heat a room, and make sure you have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Check this list of heat safety tips from the city health department for other ways to stay safe.

Does writing to your landlord with complaints work?

Sometimes it does! Varun Poddar, a media analyst living on the Upper West Side, said he got his landlord to turn the heat up by tracking the temperature, nudging them several times by email — and hinting he would take his complaint to city inspectors.

The heat had consistently been too low since he moved in in early 2021, but he and his wife didn’t complain. But this past November, his patience wore out when the weather changed and he “woke up really cold at around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.” He emailed the management company in the middle of the night.

They said they would look into it, but several more days passed, Poddar said. He emailed again saying that he had been tracking the temperature regularly – which dropped as low as 48 degrees – sent them a link to the city’s heat laws, and asked: “Should I reach out to the city? Is this something they can help with?” he recalled.

“They were like, ‘No, no, we’ll get the boilers checked.’ And they did get the boiler checked,” he said. “And since then, it has not been an issue.”

I let my super or building manager know about the problem, but they haven’t fixed anything. What now?

Experts say your next step should be a call to 311. Why? Because filing a formal heat complaint through the city’s 311 system will trigger the city’s housing agency, Housing Preservation and Development, to send an inspector to your building to check the heat.

The appearance of an inspector can mobilize landlords dragging their feet, said Shapiro. In many cases, an inspector will come within 48 hours because “the city does view heat as a very serious issue,” she said, and prioritizes those inspections in winter months. 

The problem, she said, is some landlords turn the heat on for inspectors, and then turn it off again.

At the very least, the inspector’s visit will create a formal record of the complaint — and a violation if they substantiate it, said Noelle Francois, executive director of the nonprofit Heat Seek, which works with qualified low-income tenants to document heat issues with automated temperature sensors.

“I know that it can be very frustrating to call 311 … But, if nothing else, you are creating a public record that there is a problem in your building with the heat,” she said.

What do I need to know when calling 311?

You can contact 311 by phone, or via the 311 online portal or 311 app.

A few things to know before making a 311 report:

  • The report asks for your apartment number, so your landlord will likely know that you are the person who filed the complaint. There is an option through 311 to file a complaint for a building-wide heat issue that does not require an apartment number, but experts say you shouldn’t use that option unless you know it’s a building-wide problem – because an inspector who comes to check on the problem could knock on a neighbor’s door who has heat, then close out the complaint.
  • Unfortunately, there is no way to schedule an appointment or time window when the HPD inspector may arrive, so be as flexible as possible, or alert a roommate or family member who might be home more than you to watch for a visit.
  • You can check to see if there is already a heat complaint filed within your building by visiting HPD Online.

A note for public housing residents: NYCHA tenants have a separate complaint system and cannot file complaints through 311. All heat complaints for public housing must be made through NYCHA’s Customer Contact Center at (718) 707-7771. Many times, however, complaints within NYCHA about lack of heat and hot water are left unanswered, a chronic issue THE CITY has reported on many, many times.

OK, I put my 311 complaint in and an inspector came and issued a violation. But the heat is still off. What are my options now?

Your next best option is to prepare to go to court. Don’t panic! It’s not easy, but it’s not as hard as you may think. You can do it without an attorney, experts say. And often just starting a legal process will get results, prompting landlords to get the heat on before a trial.

First, start gathering your evidence. Keep a heat log of the temperatures in your apartment and the temperature outside, day and night, regularly. Met Council has a helpful heat log you can fill in, or you can create your own. Heat Seek provides free automated temperature sensors to qualified low-income tenants. But you don’t need any high-tech system, Francois said. Just take regular readings inside with a thermometer, and write them down with the time of day and the outside temperature.

Second, bring your landlord to court with an “HP Action,” or a Housing Part Action, which means a formal complaint filed in Housing Court. Here’s how:

  • Go to your borough’s Housing Court and fill out a form to begin an HP Action. If you need help, ask the court clerk or on-site staffers with Housing Court Answers, a nonprofit whose mission is to make the court process easier to understand.
  • You’ll need to serve, or deliver, the complaint to your landlord. You can do that by certified mail, and Housing Court staff should be able to help you with the process.
  • The court will issue a date when you and your landlord will be expected to appear in court, which could be quite far in the future. Be warned: The courts are backlogged because of pandemic-era eviction cases, and experts say you shouldn’t expect a speedy court date. It could take weeks or months to get a date in court.
  • It costs $45 to file an HP Action, but you can ask the judge to waive the fee, which experts say they often do.
  • Take a look at everything you should know about HP Actions before you begin with this question-and-answer guide from Housing Court Answers.

Experts say that because of the way Housing Court operates, cases are very often settled before going to trial; Francois of Heat Seek says her organization has prepared to go to trial on behalf of tenants several times in the organization’s nine years in operation, but have never gotten to that point.

A settlement could mean a landlord agrees to make a repair and turn on the heat. But if you have to get to the point of forcing your landlord to follow the law, Shapiro of Met Council said you’re likely dealing with a stubborn owner who may still not do what is legally required. 

In extreme cases, the city may take action over a landlord’s head and make necessary repairs through the Emergency Repairs Program. But getting a resolution is an uphill battle if a landlord is uncooperative or belligerent. City Limits previously reported on the difficulty in holding landlords accountable for a lack of heat, and how poorer neighborhoods are more often where lack-of-heat complaints come from.

Shapiro’s advice: Organize with your neighbors, take action together and get ready to fight for the long haul. In her experience, buildings that work together have more success getting repairs than tenants working by themselves.

“The more people complaining, the more likely it is to get resolved,” she said.