Marla Castro has a queen-sized bed, but she can’t sleep in it. Instead, her nightly routine this winter involves inflating an air mattress in her living room and covering it with sheets.

Castro said she would love to sleep in her bedroom in the apartment overlooking Chelsea Square for which she pays $1,850 a month. But cold air seeps through two holes in a wall, overpowering the heater. After spending December shivering in bed most nights, Castro said she has resorted to closing her bedroom door and converting the living room to stay warm.

Her 2-year-old daughter sleeps in a crib next to her while her 10-year-old daughter has her own small bedroom with reliable heat. Castro noted her landlord has said he’ll fix the problem, but he still hasn’t, despite her multiple complaints about it.

“I’m literally sleeping in an air mattress in my own home. You do that when you’re crashing at your friend’s house for a few days or something, but not in your own home,” she said. “I’m pissed off.”

A deflated air mattress sits in the center of a living room floor, plugged into the wall next to a large space heater.
Marla Castro sleeps on this air mattress in her living room during winter when cold air seeps through the holes in her bedroom wall.
Sam Turken GBH News

Massachusetts offers heating fuel assistance and mandates apartments have sufficient heat during the winter. But many people around the state have told GBH News their experiences this winter are similar to Castro’s.

Some renters complained that their heaters don’t work, while others said a lack of insulation in their apartments lets the warm air from their heaters quickly escape. People who own their own homes also say they're experiencing problems: the high cost of heating fuel combined with real estate taxes and mortgage payments forces them to set their thermostats below 62 degrees Fahrenheit.

With few other options for warmth, both renters and homeowners said they have to wear at least three layers of clothing in their homes and use their ovens for heat.

“If you’re living somewhere and paying rent, you should not have your toes go numb,” said Tetrah Clark, who lives in Worcester. “My fingers and toes go numb because it’s so cold in my apartment.”

Clark said she and her roommates walk around the unit wearing winter jackets, and she sleeps with four blankets and a cold-weather sleeping bag atop her mattress. The student at Clark University noted her natural gas heater works but it’s not strong enough to make up for her apartment’s poor insulation.

To save money on the heating bill — which Clark said can soar to over $500 a month — she and her roommates have decided to keep their thermostat at 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Clark said her daily goal this winter is to spend as much time as possible on campus so she can avoid being in her apartment.

“I know most people are probably counting down to graduation. But I’m just counting down to when I can be in my room again and not be shivering at night,” she said.

“I know most people are probably counting down to graduation. But I’m just counting down to when I can be in my room again and not be shivering at night."
Tetrah Clark, renter in Worcester

State protections

Massachusetts has a moratorium during the winter that prevents utility companies from shutting off heat if residents are behind on payments. State law also requires that landlords ensure temperatures reach at least 64 degrees Fahrenheit at night and 68 degrees during the day from Sept. 15 to May 31. If a landlord violates that, a local board of health can inspect the unit and order the owner to “make a good faith effort to correct the violation within 24 hours.”

GBH News spoke with 10 renters across the state struggling to stay warm. Some who have complained to their respective municipalities said they were still working with officials to address the problem. Other tenants said they either weren’t aware of the minimum heat law or hadn’t taken advantage of it because they feared their landlords might retaliate by threatening eviction or increasing rent.

“We’re in the wintertime and we can’t even call [our landlord],” said Christina Diaz, who struggles to stay warm in her apartment managed by a public housing authority. She asked GBH to not disclose where she lives because she fears retaliation. “If we call we’re going to get fined,” she added.

Share your story

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities wants to hear from residents who have difficulty affording utility bills. Submit your comments by March 1.

Mass Landlords, the nonprofit trade association that represents small landlords across the state, instructs its members to ensure their tenants can stay warm. If a heating system malfunctions or breaks, the association notes, a landlord risks frozen pipes, inspector fines and violations of the state sanitary code. Tenants may also withhold rent.

The office of Attorney General Andrea Campbell is responsible for enforcing the state heating requirements. In an email, a spokesperson for the attorney general said tenants are encouraged to file complaints with her office if they are unable to resolve their concerns of inadequate heating through a local board of health or inspectional service department.

Clark, Castro and Diaz all said given Massachusetts’ shortage of affordable housing, they can’t find anywhere else within their budgets that has reliable heat.

Housing advocates have argued that despite the state heating protections, landlords have little incentive to ensure their properties stay warm. That’s because, in today’s tight housing market, there will always be a tenant willing to pay — regardless of the living conditions.

A man adjusts a small space heater on top of a dresser in a bedroom.
FILE — Luis Heredia turns on a space heater in his son's bedroom in Lawrence, Mass., Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018.
Charles Krupa AP

'Degrees as literal dollars per hour'

Homeowners who deliberately keep their heating thermostats low also face challenges navigating the state's energy protections.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, average natural gas and electricity prices this winter are estimated to be slightly lower than 2023 but still higher than previous years. And although heating oil is also down compared to last year, several people said the costs — about $4.15 a gallon — are too high.

Oil delivery companies require that customers pay for at least 100 gallons of fuel for each delivery. Residents said buying in bulk makes sense because of how quickly oil furnaces eat up fuel. But Erica Larner of Amherst said that in the past, she’s struggled to afford the deliveries as she juggled paying off a mortgage and other bills. So she had to supplement her furnace with small amounts of diesel fuel she picked up from a gas station.

So far this winter, Larner has spent over $2,000 on oil, and is currently trying to keep her home at 62 degrees Fahrenheit at night and 65 during the day to avoid paying any more.

“You can look at those degrees as literal dollars per hour,” she said. “It will still induce fear in me to turn the heat up.”

“It will still induce fear in me to turn the heat up.”
Erica Larner, homeowner in Amherst

Larner said she would love to place solar panels on her roof that could fuel an electric heater, but that installation could be expensive. She’s also aware of rebates that Mass Save offers for improving insulation and converting to more efficient heating systems, like heat pumps, that don’t rely on fossil fuels. However, she’s heard about long delays before people actually receive their reimbursements.

A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which helps oversee Mass Save, said the program is now relying on a new third-party vendor to speed up the rebate process.

The public utilities department also has been seeking input from families struggling to pay for heat as part of a larger investigation into making utility bills more affordable. Officials invite residents to submit comments by March 1.

Currently, Massachusetts offers home energy financial assistance to people making at most 60% of their area median income. The program weeds out residents like Larner who have more income but still struggle to pay for heat.

As a result, the Department of Public Utilities is considering improvements to affordability programs. Potential changes include additional income-based discounts or caps on the percentage of income residents spend on utility bills.

“The cost of energy here in Massachusetts is on the higher end compared to some of the other states,” said Staci Rubin, one of three commissioners of the Department of Public Utilities. “We are committed to doing everything we can to ensure an equitable, clean energy transition and make sure that affordability is front and center.”