New Heat Sensing Technology’s Potential Boost to Tenant Advocacy Put In Focus by The Wall Street Journal

As winter approaches, The Wall Street Journal reported on how tenants and their advocates, like The Legal Aid Society, are turning to innovative heat-monitoring technology to record the lack of heat in apartment buildings. In the article, Sunny Noh, a Supervising Attorney with Legal Aid’s Tenant Rights Coalition, expressed hope judges would accept the data as part of tenant arguments that some landlords wrongly withhold heat in order to force out rent-regulated tenants.

The article noted Legal Aid’s recently-filed suit against the owner of a 71-unit building in Brooklyn, which has been the subject of inadequate heat complaints for years. The lawsuit points to data from sensors provided by Heat Seek, a New York City non-profit organization. Tenants at the building have endured unheated apartments since late October, according to the suit.

While Heat Seek temperature information was used last winter in eight court cases that all settled, Noh said the data has not yet been admitted at trial. “It’s really exciting to be able to track this information and hopefully get the courts to accept it, so we can show what everybody knows to be true,” said Noh.

The Wall Street Journal
New Tech Helps Tenants Make Their Case in Court
By Corinne Ramey
December 12, 2016

Tenants and their advocates are using new technology to document a lack of heat in apartment buildings, a condition they say has been difficult to prove in housing-court cases.

Small sensors provided by the New York City-based nonprofit Heat Seek, now installed in some city apartments, measure temperatures and transmit the data to a server. Tenant advocates say the data buttress their contention that some landlords withhold heat as a way to oust rent-regulated tenants.

“It’s really exciting to be able to track this information and hopefully get the courts to accept it, so we can show what everybody knows to be true,” said Sunny Noh, a supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Tenant Rights Coalition, which filed a civil suit using Heat Seek’s data.

Vito Signorile, a spokesman for the Rent Stabilization Association, a group representing building owners, said the sensors are a useful tool but don’t capture other variables that change temperature.

“Our concern is that oftentimes if it becomes too warm inside the apartment the tenant could open the window, which would lower the temperature on these monitors,” Mr. Signorile said.

In the suit filed by the Legal Aid Society, tenants at 178 Rockaway Parkway, a 71-unit building in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood, allege they haven’t had heat since Oct. 26. The city mandates landlords must provide heat from October through May. When it is below 55 degrees outside during the day, the temperature inside must be at least 68 degrees.

Samuel Charles, the building’s owner, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Noelle Francois, executive director of Heat Seek, held two small devices, the smaller one roughly the size of a deck of cards, in her palms. The smaller device, called a cell, transmits hourly temperature readings to the larger device, called a hub, through a radio signal. The hub is equipped with a small modem, which it uses to send data to a web server. The nonprofit typically places a hub in each building and the cells inside individual apartments.

Tenants, advocates and lawyers then access the data on a web application that shows hourly readings for indoor and outdoor temperatures. Heat Seek is organizing training on the data for housing-court judges early next year.

Last winter, Heat Seek’s data were used in eight court cases representing a total of about 20 buildings, all of which were settled, Ms. Francois said. Currently, the sensors are in about six buildings and she anticipates about 50 buildings will have them by the end of the winter.

Data from Heat Seek haven’t been admitted at a trial yet, said Ms. Noh, the Legal Aid lawyer.

The nonprofit, with help from housing lawyers, has chosen to focus on gentrifying neighborhoods because they expect landlords there have more incentives to force out rent-regulated tenants.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who has provided funding to Heat Seek for its work in some Brooklyn buildings, said a lack of temperature evidence in court has been a consistent problem for tenants.

“There is a dance that is done every winter where the landlord would come in when he gets a message that the city is coming to inspect the heat in the building,” he said. “He’d turn it up, and the city leaves, and he turns it back down.”