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What to Do When Your Apartment Is Too Hot

There is no legal right to be cool in New York City as there is with heat in the winter. Still, you can push your landlord to fix your AC — or find a public cooling center.

July 28, 2023 Rachel Holliday Smith and Samantha Maldonado, The City
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It’s the dog days of summer, and your apartment is boiling – again.

What’s a tenant to do when the thermometer climbs? Unlike in the winter, New York City landlords have no legal obligation to control the temperature in your space when it’s hot out. Though that could change.

In the mayor’s citywide sustainability plan released earlier this spring, the Adams administration proposed mandated cooling in new construction by 2025 and setting a maximum indoor temperature by 2030 — something Dallas has already done, setting 85 degrees as the max.

But until such laws come to fruition, here’s what you can do to keep cool inside:

When to Get Medical Help

First things first: Know when you or a loved one is getting too hot, and don’t hesitate to seek medical help. Adults 65 and older are especially susceptible to heat stress, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

If you’re seeing any of the following symptoms of heat stroke, the CDC recommends calling 911 right away:

  • Body temperature is high, at 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
  • Skin is hot, red, dry or damp.
  • A fast, strong pulse.
  • Headache, dizziness or nausea.
  • Confusion or passing out.

While you wait for medical help, move the person to a cooler place, cover them with cool clothes or give them a cool bath, but do not give them anything to drink, per the CDC.

“This is really the time to check in on neighbors, especially elderly neighbors,” said Andrea Shapiro, director of programs at the tenant advocacy group Met Council on Housing.

Read THE CITY’s guide on how to check in during a heat wave, with specific, possibly life-saving questions.

Go to a Cooling Center

If you don’t have air conditioning and you need to cool off immediately during a heat wave, go to a cooling center.

The city opens its air-conditioned cooling centers when the forecast from the National Weather Service says the heat index will be 95 degrees or higher for two or more days, or when it’s slated to hit 100 degrees for any length of time.

Find a cooling center here.

Even when the city hasn’t officially declared a cooling emergency, you can beat the heat in the same places, said Annie Carforo, the climate justice campaign manager at the nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

“A lot of cooling centers are just community spaces that are open on days that are not considered to be a heat advisory. Go to your local library, to your local senior center or community center,” she said.

And keep these cooling tips in mind, collected by WE ACT through its climate-preparedness workshops led in Upper Manhattan:

  • Drink cool or room-temperature water all day, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
  • Keep your blinds down in sun-facing rooms.
  • Do not open the windows of your apartment unless the temperature outside is cooler than inside. (WE ACT suggests getting a thermometer to track this.)
  • Take a cold shower.
  • Do not use the oven or stove to cook.
  • Place cool water or a damp washcloth in front of or on your fan.

Make Sure Your AC Works — and Push to Have It Repaired

New Yorkers don’t have the right to air conditioning. But you do have some rights when it comes to already-existing AC, experts say.

If you moved into an apartment that had an air conditioner already in it, or if you have central air, you have the right to have those machines and systems operating correctly.

“They [landlords] are required to fix or replace an air conditioner that came with the apartment,” Shapiro said.

Bear in mind: If you’re on a rent-stabilized lease and the air conditioner stopped working, request a used one from your landlord to replace it, not a new one. If you request a new one and receive it, your landlord may use it as a reason to legally raise your rent, Shapiro said.

If your landlord refuses to make repairs to your air conditioner, that’s a good time to form a tenant association because often a heat or cooling issue “affects the whole building,” Shapiro said. Then, consider bringing the property owner to Housing Court.

How? Use an “HP Action,” or a Housing Part Action, to file a formal complaint in Housing Court. The first step is to go to your borough’s Housing Court and fill out an HP Action form. 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. 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)

Get Help to Pay for AC

If you have no air conditioning now and need it, pay attention to free AC giveaways. They could come from local elected officials – like your City Council representative, borough president or the mayor’s office – or by private companies. Independent charities, like local churches, or mutual aid networks may offer free machines, too.

Be aware: If you get an AC and you live in a very old building, its electrical system may not support modern air conditioners. If you are a tenant with disabilities, your landlord may have to make a reasonable accommodation for you if your building doesn’t support a standard, modern machine; you can read more about that from the tenant advocacy group Just Fix.

New York State also provides millions of federal dollars to eligible low-income New Yorkers to pay for up to $1,000 for an air conditioner or fan through the Home Energy Assistance Program, or HEAP. But the first-come, first-served program’s funds have already dried up for 2023.

Advocates say New York should be spending more on cooling assistance, especially since it’s the major driver of weather-related deaths and hospitalizations.

The HEAP program is open from May through until the end of August, or whenever funds run out – and applications closed on July 14 for the $15 million allocated for the cooling assistance. So far, nearly 10,000 New Yorkers have received assistance, including over 3,000 in the five boroughs, according to the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

“We are woefully under-funding cooling assistance. It’s embarrassing,” said Carforo of WE ACT.

Last summer, $23 million dried up by July 8, and nearly 24,000 households received the benefit, including almost 9,000 in New York City. (At that time, the eligibility criteria was broader.)

“As our summers grow warmer due to climate change, the operation of equipment like ACs and fans to stay safe, healthy and cool indoors will grow all the more important,” said Ian Donaldson, spokesperson for the Public Utility Law Project. “However, higher demand will drive up electricity usage and bills, which can put a real financial strain on low-income and other vulnerable households.”

Do you have advice for fellow New Yorkers about staying cool? What else should we know about it? Get in touch with THE CITY newsroom at [email protected].

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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