This article was written by the team of housing experts at JustFix
Learn about laws related to keeping your New York City apartment cool in the summer.
Rent stabilized tenants have distinct rights and obligations when it comes to air conditioning, find out if you're stabilized.
Our short answer: Sometimes, but not that often. Even though more New Yorkers die from heat exhaustion every summer than lack of heat in the winter, New York law does not specifically require landlords to provide tenants with cooling systems. That said, tenants do have some rights when it comes to cooling. Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about cooling in New York City.
It depends! If your apartment is rent stabilized or rent controlled, and you moved in with a cooling system, the landlord must maintain that service for your entire tenancy, even after your first lease expires. While many older buildings do not have pre-installed cooling systems, newer buildings receiving tax abatements are also rent stabilized.These buildings likely have centralized cooling systems that the owner must maintain. Some older buildings also have built-in air conditioning units that your landlord must keep in working order.
If your landlord fails to maintain the cooling system you had when you moved in, you can file a complaint with the State agency that oversees rent stabilization, the Division of Homes and Community Renewal (“DHCR”). DHCR may freeze or reduce your rent until the landlord corrects the problems.
Before filing an official complaint with DHCR, try asking your landlord to fix the cooling system using JustFix’s Letter of Complaint. If your neighbors have the same problem, get them to write letters too. There’s strength in numbers. Read our Tenant Organizing Resources guide created by organizers and tenants participating in our Design Advisory Council (“DAC”).
Most importantly, prior to installing an air conditioning, protect yourself and your neighbors by ensuring you safely install window units. Also, check out your lease for any rules related to installing air conditioning units.
For rent stabilized tenants, your first lease will always govern your tenancy, even after you renew. Check that first lease for any rules or regulations surrounding cooling systems.
For non-stabilized tenants (also called “market tenants”), your most recent lease (even if expired) will govern your tenancy so review that lease for any rules related to air conditioning. Most market leases do not include extra fees for an air conditioning unit but check out your most recent lease to be sure.
If you moved into a rent stabilized apartment without air conditioning units, you can install your own but the law allows landlords to charge you an extra fee for each unit. The amount charged depends on whether your landlord pays electricity for the apartment. If you don’t receive a bill for your air conditioning units within a reasonable period of time, the landlord waives the right to collect this fee for as long as you have the AC units.
For all tenants — both regulated and market — while your landlord could try to collect unpaid air conditioning fees in small claims or civil court, you cannot face eviction for failing to pay these fees.
Whether your landlord charges extra fees, cooling an apartment always involves upfront costs as well ongoing utility expenses. The Home Energy Assistance Program (“HEAP”) offers eligible households with financial assistance for the purchase, installation, and electrical costs associated with cooling your apartment. The program operates across New York State and New York City residents can apply online through Access HRA. HEAP operates on a first-come, first serve basis so apply early in the year if you anticipate needing assistance.
Unfortunately, some older buildings do not have sufficient electrical outlets or electrical capacity to support modern air conditioning units. Even the shape of your outlets may not accommodate most modern air conditioning plugs. While laws governing electricity systems in newer buildings require landlords to accommodate air conditioning units, older buildings may fall under exceptions to modern electrical requirements. Often, these electrical shortcomings leave tenants vulnerable to heat exhaustion on the hottest days of summer.
Tenants with disabilities may have additional protections when it comes to air conditioning. City, State, and Federal Fair Housing laws require landlords to make reasonable accommodations, including potentially upgrading electric systems to allow for air conditioning installations. The New York City Human Rights Law applies to almost all apartments in New York City and provides especially robust protections for tenants with disabilities. A reasonable accommodation request involves a few steps:
Prove the Disability: A tenant needs a letter from a medical clinician (a doctor or any medical provider treating the disability) stating that the tenant has a disability requiring an air conditioning unit in their apartment.
Wait for a Response: In order to avoid upgrading the electrical system, the landlord would have to show that upgrading the electric system proves an “undue hardship.” Importantly, in New York City, the burden of showing “undue hardship” lies with the landlord. Specifically, if the tenant files a complaint or a lawsuit, the landlord would need to show that such an upgrade isn’t technically feasible or too expensive.
Engage in a Dialogue: Even if the landlord refuses to upgrade the electricity because of “undue hardship,” the owner must participate in a “cooperative dialogue” with the tenant and follow up regarding the outcome of this conversation in writing. Failure to engage in a cooperative dialogue constitutes a violation of the New York City Human Rights Law.
If the landlord fails to engage in a cooperative dialogue or reasonably accommodate a tenant, tenants can file a complaint at the NYC Commission on Human Rights or contact a local legal services provider such as the Legal Aid Society or Legal Services NYC.
Even if the law doesn’t require an electrical upgrade, organized tenants can often convince a landlord to do the work required to allow them to effectively use AC units. Check out our Tenant Organizing Resources guide created by organizers and tenants participating in our Design Advisory Council (“DAC”).
Certain housing conditions may make your already-sweltering apartment even more unbearable in the summer. Windows that do not open, broken ventilation fans in bathrooms, and other conditions that trap heat, mold, or moisture in your apartment all constitute violations of the housing code.
Contact your landlord or management company directly and ask them for repairs. If you live in Public Housing (aka NYCHA), report the problem to NYCHA online or by calling (718) 707-7771.
For tenants living in private housing, if your landlord doesn’t respond to your complaints, call 311* to report the issue to the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (“HPD”). When you call 311, say “apartment maintenance”, or report the issue online. HPD should send an inspector to your apartment within about a week.
NYCHA and tenants with private landlords can also use JustFix’s letters of Complaint tool to send an official letter requesting repairs.
*KNOW THE RISK: If you are a “market tenant” (i.e. not NYCHA and not rent stabilized/controlled), you may have fewer protections against eviction or large rent increases.
Calling 311 or starting an HP Action may upset your landlord. An upset landlord could refuse to renew your lease or may increase your rent. This is illegal retaliation.
If you think a Letter of Complaint or a 311 won’t motivate your landlord, consider starting a case for repairs in Housing Court called an “HP Action.” Both NYCHA and private renters can file HP Actions for repairs needed in your apartment or the common areas of the building. Learn how to file an HP Action by visiting the NYC Housing Court website. For extra tips, visit Housing Court Answer's website.
Remember, you have the right to a habitable apartment. If your landlord refuses to make repairs in your apartment, likely your neighbors need repairs too. Organized tenants get repairs faster. Write a letter together, call 311 together, and even file an HP Action together.
In the summer, New York City often opens Cooling Centers in senior centers, public libraries, and even large stores. During heat emergencies, the Cooling Center Finder, when active, should show a map of cooling locations with information about the hours of operation, wheelchair accessibility, and whether you can bring your pets.