By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK -- When Tom Hunter and his two roommates were left without heat for more than a month by a negligent landlord in New York, they began toying with an idea: an app that could help renters keep landlords in check. Two winters and two months of coding later, the friends are ready to launch Heat Seek NYC in late October in collaboration with two not-for-profit groups.
The new Web app, which tracks ambient temperatures inside apartments with an Internet-connected sensor, is designed to be used by New Yorker renters, who filed some 214,000 complaints last year alone, according to the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The data recorded on the app produces a log that can be printed and taken to housing court.
"Our goal is to keep the heat on this winter," Hunter said.
Heat Seek NYC is among a growing number of tech-based tools for tenants and their advocates to force slack landlords to toe the line. Another is SquaredAway Chicago, a Web app designed to bolster tenant requests for repairs by recording them on a third-party server. The program is being replicated by local housing groups in Vermont, Boston and Washington, D.C.
Also in the works is RentRocket, a website that uses crowd-sourced data to show the full cost of rental properties, including utility fees. It is expected to debut in at least 10 U.S. cities from Bloomington, Indiana, to Burlington, Vermont.
Finally, under development in Los Angeles is an app called Tenants in Action, which will report housing violations in English and Spanish directly to city agencies.
With renters constituting up to 35 percent of households nationwide in early 2013, according to a report by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, there should be no shortage of complaints in sight.
The new apps are part of a trend by not-for-profits toward making new technologies available to benefit a wider audience, said Annemarie Spitz of the Chicago-based firm Greater Good Studio, which uses design methods to solve civic issues.
In the end, the high-tech apps will do something as low-tech but essential as establishing a paper trail, albeit electronic, said John Bartlett, director of Metropolitan Tenants Organization, which worked with Spitz to build SquaredAway Chicago.
"One of the issues that we continually come up against with tenants is that everything is verbal, so there's no way to properly document what's happened," Bartlett said.
"Rental housing is a business transaction, and proper business etiquette is you put things in writing," he said.
Between October 2013 and May 2014, New York City completed about $5.1 million in emergency repairs when building owners failed to restore heat, hot water or both after being served with violation notices, according to the housing department.
Heat Seek NYC requires the installation of a temperature sensor inside an apartment. The tenant then uses a free app to compare the sensor data against outdoor temperatures and indoor requirements set by the New York City heating code to identify violations as they occur.
In New York, landlords are required to heat buildings to at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit when daytime temperatures fall below 55 degrees outside. At night, the inside temperature must be at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit" when it is 40 degrees or less outside.
Pricing plans for the sensor are still in the works, although the cost is expected to range from $30 to $80.
Heat Seek NYC plans to donate 100 sensors to low-income households this year and to give away another 1,000 after an online fundraising campaign.
By Sebastien Malo