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Like many renters in old buildings, I rely on steam heat as my only source of warmth. In my building – and I know it is this way in others – the heat is centrally controlled and goes on and off building-wide. This means I have no way to turn the heat on when it’s cold, or turn it off when it’s too hot. The wiring can’t handle space heaters, so I resort to opening my gas oven and turning it to 400 degrees on the colder days, which may be unorthodox (or even illegal?) but is surprisingly effective. During hotter days the heat will sometimes go on even though the room temperature is certainly well above 70 degrees, and I have no option but to sweat it out.

When I moved in I was told the heat needed to be on a certain number of hours each day. This contradicts what I read on the SF Rent Board website, which explains that the metric of adequate heat is by temperature and not just hours of heating. I’ve never been able to pinpoint the heating schedule in my building as it appears to vary, but it is off most mornings from 6-8am and for large chunks of most evenings – the times when I need it most.

Is there any action I can take to improve this situation? Even if I am unable to control my own heater, it would be helpful if I could at least convince the landlord to publish a heating schedule and maybe even get that schedule adjusted so that the heater is used in a more rational manner. While I would love more heat during those cold hours, I also fear an over-response resulting in more heat during warmer days. Is there any recourse against over-heating an apartment?

I believe the building was built in 1912 and is eight stories of mostly studios in downtown San Francisco.

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Are you a renter with questions? Dave’s got answers, at tenant@sfappeal.com

Your question is certainly appropriate this week. As I write this response, I’m bundled up in my minus 40 squall jacket. And let me tell you, it ain’t easy typing with gloves on.

You should not have to heat your apartment with your oven. That’s the bottom line here. It’s dangerous, expensive and while it is not per se illegal, if you start a fire, you’re going to get blamed for it.

First let’s look at the law. San Francisco Housing Code 701(c)(1) provides the minimum heating requirement for apartments:

San Francisco requirements…don’t consider people who work at home, who are sick or who are retired and at home during the day.“[H]eat capable of maintaining a room temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Centigrade) at a point midway between the heating unit and the furthest wall and which point is three feet above the floor, shall be made available to each occupied habitable room for 13 hours between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.”

Clearly you can demonstrate that the boiler isn’t timed correctly if you are not receiving heat between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. or in the evenings before 10 p.m. I recommend that you talk to other tenants in your building to see if they are experiencing the same problems. In this case there may be persuasion in numbers. You should write the landlord, en masse, pointing out that the boiler seems to be working, but that the timer does not conform to the law. Give the landlord some time to fix the problem. If the landlord does not respond or refuses to fix the timer, you should call a San Francisco Housing Inspector and make a complaint.

Regarding the heat in the summer, there may be people in the building, for example, elderly retired tenants, who need the heat. Of course almost everybody requires some heat in the summer in San Francisco, even Mark Twain. But seriously, as long as the heat is working the way it is supposed to, you should be able to open windows to cool down in the hotter months.

Recently, in a tenant lawyer list serve, a colleague mused that the San Francisco requirements are antiquated and don’t consider people who work at home, who are sick or who are retired and at home during the day, not to mention folks who work the nightshift. It’s a point well taken which deserves consideration politically. Although this might not be an issue if there were requirements to refurbish old buildings to make them more livable. Where the hell is the stimulus money to insulate residential buildings and provide efficient heating systems? Oh yeah, I forgot, it’s in Afghanistan and Lloyd (Goldman Sachs CEO doing God’s work) Blankfein’s pocket.

Dave Crow is an attorney who specializes in San Francisco landlord tenant law. However, the opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author, do not constitute legal advice, and the information is general in nature. Consult the advice of an attorney for any specific problem. You understand that no attorney-client relationship will exist with Dave Crow or his firm, Crow & Rose unless they have agreed to represent you. You should not respond to this site with any information that you believe is highly confidential.

the author

Dave Crow is an attorney who specializes in San Francisco landlord tenant law. However, the opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author, do not constitute legal advice, and the information is general in nature. Consult the advice of an attorney for any specific problem. You understand that no attorney-client relationship will exist with Dave Crow or his firm, Crow & Rose unless they have agreed to represent you. You should not respond to this site with any information that you believe is highly confidential.

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  • Adam Engelhart

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  • Adam Engelhart

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  • Eve Batey

    Yikes, Adam! There’s a lot of misinformation on that page. We have a hard enough time making sure the Appeal’s accurate, don’t think we have the energy to start fixing others’ sites.

  • Eve Batey

    Yikes, Adam! There’s a lot of misinformation on that page. We have a hard enough time making sure the Appeal’s accurate, don’t think we have the energy to start fixing others’ sites.

  • TZ

    I am a San Francisco renter and my apartment often gets as hot as 90-95 degrees even with every window open and fans on. My landlord says that he can’t turn of the radiators but with the last heat wave, I couldn’t sleep it was so unbearable. I know tenants have a right to have heating but is there a way to stop too much heat? I feel like I am being pushed out and don’t want to pay for an air conditioner and higher electric bill which would also be a waste of energy. Does anyone know the law?

  • Hannah

    I believe the actual law stipulates only that the temperature be maintained at 68 degrees or higher in a a central unit in the building, where a thermostat is installed. So if the temperature in *that* unit is at least 68 degrees, but your apartment is, for example, on a lower floor above a garage or colder space … and your apartment is much colder, the landlord can say “hey, the central unit is at least 68 degrees, screw you.”

    Which is the response I got from my landlord. Not literally, but basically – it’s your bad luck you are directly over a carport that is exposed to the elements, and you have no insulation in your flooring so the only thing between you and the ice cold carports is a 65 year old thin sheet of plywood, and some hardwood planks. Go ahead and freeze, rent-controlled tenant, because that one “central” unit is toasty warm.

    The heat NEVER comes on in my building. Or maybe for two hours a night.

    I wonder if California habitability laws don’t trump San Francisco’s bizarre law that allows greedy landlords to freeze out tenants like me.