It’s getting cold outside. But indoors, heat season is officially here.

Renters in New York City will soon be waking up to the smell of burning dust and the sound of old radiators clanking off the cobwebs. And for those whose landlords don't flip the switch, there are steps you can take to put their feet to the fire.

Gothamist spoke to Jared Riser, a staff attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group and a fellow in its Tenants' Rights Unit about what New Yorkers need to know about their right to stay warm.

What is heat season?

The city designates the eight months between Oct. 1 and May 31 as heat season, a time during which heat must be provided under the following conditions:

  • During the daytime, between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. if the outside temperature falls below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, the inside temperature must be 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • At night, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the temperature inside must be at least 62 degrees Fahrenheit, regardless of outside temperatures.

What should tenants do if their apartments are too cold?

The first step is to contact the owner.

Tenants of private buildings should contact their management company, super or landlords directly. NYCHA tenants should call the Customer Contact Center at (718) 707-7771 or use MyNYCHA.

“I would always recommend that you get some kind of document evidence of this communication,” Riser said. “Either you reach out to them via email, via text message. Even if you reach out to them over the phone, send up a follow-up email just to be like, ‘as per our conversation, this is what was discussed.”

That documentation could come in handy later on, should tenants need to take further action about the circumstances.

Next, call 311 and document evidence.

If the landlord is reluctant to do the repairs, Riser said the next step would be to call 311 to report a housing code violation. Tenants should also begin collecting evidence by keeping a heat log using an air temperature thermometer, available at most corner stores.

The New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development will then attempt to notify the owner, and if service isn’t restored, an inspector will be sent to the apartment, verify the complaint and issue a violation. The violation will be posted online and sent to the landlord with a deadline for when they must fix the heat.

“The HPD is involved and that sometimes pushes the landlord to go about resolving the issue. For whatever reason, the landlord's still not doing anything about that, then I think your next step would be to file what's called an HP action,” Riser said.

Though HPD can’t issue violations for NYCHA buildings, NYCHA tenants can file HP actions.

Finally, start an HP action.

If the lack of heat continues, tenants can commence a legal proceeding in housing court against the landlord called an HP Action. Both private and NYCHA residents can file HP actions, or tenant-initiated lawsuits to compel landlords to complete the needed repairs in an apartment or building.

Because a violation can only be issued if the inspector is in the apartment when the temperature is below the regulations, this is when a heat log would be especially helpful.

“I'll say this, with HP actions, they do kind of move slow to get to the point where they're issuing civil penalties does take some time,” Riser said, though he added that judges do acknowledge the urgency of heat violations. “It takes some time… but as long as you keep at it, I think eventually you will get the repairs.”

Can tenants withhold rent because of lack of heat?

Lack of heat during heat season is a violation of the NYC warranty of habitability, so some tenants might opt to withhold rent if the problem persists. Though Riser said this should be used as a last resort. The landlord will likely file a nonpayment case, so tenants should always put the rent money aside to lessen the risk of eviction.

“With rent strikes, the first thing is always important is to save the money. Each month that you're on rent strike, put it away," Riser said. "You shouldn't expect or assume ‘I'm getting an abatement, I'm getting a discount on rent because of the heat, I'm not going to have to pay this.’ I think it's always a good idea to save the money."

What happens if an owner doesn’t comply with heat regulations?

If service isn’t restored after a 311 complaint is filed, an inspector will go to the building, verify the complaint, and issue a violation.

Lack of heat violations are considered “hazardous” or “class C” violations, and owners will be penalized between $250 and $500 per day for each initial heat or hot water violation. Subsequent violations during the same or next heat season would be penalized anywhere between $500 and $1,000 per day.

If a building owner fails to restore heat and hot water after receiving a violation, the HPD’s Emergency Repair Program may take over and contract private companies to fix the problem. Owners will be billed for the repairs.