The renter’s guide to surviving Pittsburgh winters, frigid apartments and frozen pipes

Here’s what the law requires of your landlord — and maybe even of you.

Won't you be a good landlord? Won't you, please?

Won't you be a good landlord? Won't you, please?

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Updated, 5 p.m. Jan 5

It’s winter, and it’s supposed to be cold outside. It isn’t, however, supposed to be cold in your apartment.

If it is, there’s a problem — and a few potential remedies.

Legally speaking, there are requirements of landlords in cities like Pittsburgh.

First there’s the Landlord Tenant Act and implied warranty of habitability, which requires landlords to provide heat, water and basically functional shelter.

There are also county-level rules establishing minimum temperatures that need to be maintained in apartments and rental homes here — although some doubt their enforceability.

According to the Allegheny County Health Department’s website, the heating season here is from Oct. 1 to May 31 of the following year, and landlords are required to keep units at minimum temperatures during that time.

This includes a minimum temperature of at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit in all dwelling units when the outside temperature is 10 degrees or above.

If it’s 10 or below, Rebecca Eileen Puhac, a 10-year landlord/tenant attorney in Pittsburgh, said your apartment should be no less than 61 degrees, in accordance with county rules.

The Allegheny County Health Department considers it a “real and immediate threat to the life, health and safety of the occupant(s)” when an apartment falls below 60 degrees. The ACHD considers it a “major health hazard” when a majority of habitable rooms and bathrooms are between 60 and 65.

So what should you do if this sounds like your place?

For starters, the mayor’s office says call your landlord or rental agency immediately, and Puhac agrees.

“It’s important to contact your landlord as a first step. Inform them that the heating is not working properly, even if it’s working in some of the unit and not the rest,” she said.

Attorney Matthew S. Feinman added: “Be sure to put it in writing to make sure it’s documented that the landlord received written notice of a problem from you. […] If it’s an emergency situation, you’ve got to get out of there, and let the courts decide. If it’s not an emergency, ask the courts to give you a remedy.”

Knowing how long to wait for the landlord to respond can be a bit trickier.

“Check the terms of your lease agreement,” Puhac said. “There might be a requirement in the agreement [stipulating] that the landlord has to respond within a certain number of days. If it’s a safety issue, you should contact the landlord and try to immediately remedy the situation.”

A lack of heat in this weather would certainly qualify as a safety issue. (In fact, the Washington Post once reported that extreme cold is deadlier than extreme heat and responsible for more deaths than leukemia, homicide and liver disease.)

But what if your landlord or realty agency doesn’t respond?

In heating-related situations, you have three options: get out, fix the problem yourself and bill the landlord later, or go to a third party like the county health department or a tenant advocacy group or legal aid network for further guidance.

“If a landlord does not remedy the situation, a tenant can go forward and remedy the situation themselves by hiring a plumber or licensed contractor and then deduct those costs from their rent,” Puhac said. “If you can’t afford to pay for repairs yourself, contact the Allegheny County Health Department. […] The courts want to see that you tried to remedy the situation with the landlord first before you sought other types of legal remedies.”

As for attempting to tackle the problem yourself, Attorney Maximilian F. Beier offers a word of warning.

“The risk you run in doing this is that most leases do not authorize you to touch or modify in any way the equipment of a property. You’re not supposed to be moving pipes or replacing furnaces or removing fixtures or modifying things without the express written consent of your landlord, and if you destroy a furnace because you hired someone unqualified or attempted it yourself, you could ultimately be held liable.”

Beier had another caveat.

He said that while there are county rules concerning minimum temperatures, they’re nearly impossible to enforce.

“The county certainly plays a role in this because of subsidized housing, but unless the county is subsidizing the housing, they don’t play a big role in determining whether something meets the implied warranty of habitability.”

What it really comes down to, Beier said, is the contract or lease between a landlord and tenant.

“If you have a unit that has inadequate heat in times of cold, you have the right to tell the landlord, and the landlord has to make it right. But it’s a subjective standard. Sixty-one degrees is pretty cold, and people have good reason to complain about that, and if a tenant complained to a court, a landlord could or would be ordered to fix that.”

If worst comes to absolute worst, there are several warming shelters available in the city.

The Allegheny County Health Department tells The Incline that in cases of no working heat in a rental unit, they first warn the occupant about the dangers of cold and then call the owner of the property and give verbal orders to restore the heat (usually within 24-48 hours).

“Once that time frame is up, we will contact the complainant to see if the heat was restored,” the department said in an email. “If so, we will close the case. If the heat was not restored, we will schedule a time to perform a physical inspection. If we find no heat at the time of inspection (and the tenant isn’t the impediment to getting it turned on), we will give written orders to have heat restored, usually 24-48 hours. If the heat is not restored after that time frame, we will send a penalty assessment warning letter, and if it is still not restored after that time period, we will impose a civil penalty.”

Meanwhile, heat is just one of the potential issues facing tenants in cold like this. Many are also forced to deal with plumbing issues including water main breaks or frozen pipes.

“The big issue now is pipes freezing,” Puhac said.

“People have contacted me and said, ‘We no longer have sources of water because the pipes are frozen, and we can’t flush toilets’ and things like that.”

Luckily there are a few more options available here, depending, of course, on your access to the problem areas.

Renters can attempt DIY water pipe insulation, like this, to prevent frozen pipes in the first place.

Puhac said renters can also try to unfreeze pipes with this apparatus, which retails for around $30, depending on length.

“The cost of these self-help remedies should be discussed with the landlord, and the tenant should seek reimbursement from the landlord because the landlord again has a duty to provide pipes that aren’t going to be frozen and water for tenants while they’re living there,” Puhac explained.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority suggests using a hair dryer or applying rags/towels soaked in warm water to thaw frozen pipes.

According to the City of Pittsburgh, you can also open cabinet doors under a sink to allow warm air to circulate around the pipes. (That’s assuming your heat isn’t also busted.)

The good news, according to Puhac, is that most landlords are likely on top of and ready for heating issues should they arise now.

“Landlords, quite frankly, are too scared to [delay a fix or shortchange a tenant] in this type of weather,” she said.

The reason, she said, is simple.

“It could be lethal.”