Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
As wind chills dip as much as 50 degrees below zero, cities like New York and Chicago scramble to restore heating and hot water in homes.
Just in the past two days, the Metropolitan Tenants Organization’s hotline in Chicago has fielded more than 250 calls—making up a quarter of all calls for the month of January. Half were from renters who said their homes didn’t have heat. Many of the rest involved issues related to insufficient heating, like frozen water pipes.
As the polar vortex sweeps across the Midwest and into the Northeast, wind chills have plunged 20 to 50 degrees below zero, making cities like Chicago and Minneapolis colder than Antarctica. Schools have been canceled, businesses closed, and even the U.S. Postal Service stopped deliveries. Residents were urged to stay indoors, but for many people, being at home provided little refuge from the brutal chill.
Even before the record-setting cold swept into Chicago, the city’s Department of Buildings saw nearly 200 heat-related complaints from residents. On Wednesday, the department told the local PBS station that it’s received thousands of calls about heating over the last six days. The city itself has filed more than 100 lawsuits demanding landlords of some 620 units bring their buildings into compliance with Chicago’s heat ordinance, which mandates that inside temperatures inside rental units must be at least 68 during the day and 66 degrees at night. Violators can face fines of $500 to $1,000 per day, per violation.
With courts closed, though, Mayor Rahm Emanuel directed the buildings department to use “police powers” to make emergency repairs to restore heat in buildings. “Chicagoans are facing historic and extreme cold weather, and it is not only unsafe but unconscionable to let tenants go without heat,” he said in a statement. “We are not waiting 48 hours for the courts to reopen to hold landlords accountable.” By Thursday, the buildings department said it restored heat to seven buildings, most of which were two-story flats (with an apartment on each floor)—an immensely small number considering the flood of calls that the Metropolitan Tenants Organization has been getting.
When residents call 311 with building issues, they often get referred to MTO for legal counsel. “In a city with hundreds of thousands of renters, they are relying on a nonprofit with a staff of 5 to 10 counselors [which goes to show] that there just is not enough resources for renters,” says Philip DeVon, eviction prevention specialist at MTO. Under Chicago’s ordinance, residents have the option to buy heaters or pay for a hotel, then deduct the cost from their rents. They also have the right to terminate their lease. But all that is a lengthy process that requires a lot of documentation.
“So the first thing in a polar vortex is just figuring out how to get them somewhere warm,” says DeVon, adding that the city has opened up more than 60 warming centers and shuttling people to them via public buses.
Generally, he adds, the majority of callers that MTO helps are those who live in older and often deteriorating buildings, with landlords who don’t always have the resources to make major repairs. Demographically, many callers are women of color and single mothers, for whom such building issues lead to disruption in other parts of their lives, like their health and employment.
In New York City, meanwhile, more than 1,000 public housing residents are without heat or hot water as of this writing. All week, the numbers on NYCHA’s website have been fluctuating as city workers scrambled to make repairs. At one point this week, nearly 12,000 residents were affected, according to the Legal Aid Society.
The agency’s website indicated on Friday that heat-related repairs have been completed in 19 buildings over the last 24 hours, including ones that housed between 2,000 and 5,000 residents.
On Thursday Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has reached a tentative billion-dollar settlement with HUD over the substandard conditions of the city’s public houses, giving federal housing authorities more control over NYCHA. The agreement calls for the appointment of a federal monitor of the agency.
It’s not only public housing residents who are dealing with freezing buildings during the polar vortex. Under city regulations, residential buildings must be at least 68 degrees during the day, and 62 degrees overnight, once temperatures outside fall below 55 degrees. Violators can be fined between $250 and $500 a day. But non-public housing in the city has also had a history of chronic heating and hot water violations.
According to new report from the team behind Localize, an app that provides neighborhood-level insights, these problems have been most widespread among smaller buildings over the last four years.
Analyzing the data of the top 150 buildings with the highest rate of heat-related violations, as reported to NYC’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Localize’s data scientists found that nearly half of those buildings have three units or fewer while over a quarter have four. Only seven of those buildings had at least nine units. When they mapped the data, some of the neighborhoods with the most heat violations are those with a significant population of low-income residents.
That includes the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick—with the highest violation rate at 8.13 per 1,000 units—where over a quarter of residents live below the poverty line. The second highest rate of heat violation—7.87 per 1,000 units—can be found in Van Nest, a neighborhood in the Bronx where 46.9 percent of residents are considered “rent burdened,” meaning they spend more than 35 percent of their income on rent. And in Crown Heights, with 7.29 violations per 1,000 units, a fifth of the population falls below the poverty threshold.
Currently, New York’s city council is considering a bill introduced in March that would force landlords of the top 150 buildings with the most heat code violations to install heat sensors in apartments. And faced with a several record-breaking cold spells in the last two years, the housing department currently has a backlog of heating and hot water complaints, according to an analysis by AM New York, with some active cases dating back to 2017.
But even if those offending landlords are confronted, a New York Times report last February found that the agency has largely been lenient on neglectful landlords. After reviewing over a hundred court cases filed over serous building-wide issues, the Times found that in more than two-thirds of those cases, the city settled for less than 15 percent of the penalties. In one case in which the landlord faced $28,000 worth of fines, the city accepted just $1,500.
The agency defended itself to the Times, saying that pushing for higher penalties will leave tenants waiting longer for repairs and make it harder for landlords to make the necessary repairs. Yet in some cases, officials accepted only a landlord’s promise to make repairs.
Temperatures are gradually rising as the arctic chill moves on. In Chicago, temperatures have already risen above zero and the weekend could see highs in the 40s. And New York City could see temperatures as high as 55 degrees next week. Yet DeVon says that, at least for Chicagoans, their problems don’t end there.
“Because of the drastic change, all these frozen pipes are going to thaw out, they’re going to burst, there’s going to be a lot of leaks,” he tells CityLab. “Those flood calls often lead to further calls about mold, and so these things kind of just cascade into other issues.”