NYC seeks to rein in keyless technology in apartment buildings

Proposed bill would require landlords to provide physical keys

Council member Brad Lander (Credit: iStock and Getty Images)
Council member Brad Lander (Credit: iStock and Getty Images)

City officials believe the key to regulating smart lock companies is, well, requiring traditional keys.

A new City Council bill seeks to require landlords to provide tenants with physical keys to their apartments — as well as to exterior building entrances — that don’t rely on the use of technology. The measure also specifically defines a key as a “piece of shaped metal with incisions cut to fit the wards of a particular lock.”

The bill, which was discussed at a hearing on Monday, follows a lawsuit settlement reached between tenants at 521-525 West 45th Street and owners Shai Bernstein and Offir Naim. Gothamist reported in May that a state court judge approved a settlement in which the owners agreed to provide physical keys to tenants, despite having installed smart lock technology — provided by the company Latch — last year. One of the tenants who had filed the lawsuit had been locked out of his apartment building one night, and claimed he was unable to use the Latch app to unlock the door.

The arrival of such keyless technology in New York and elsewhere has raised concerns about accessibility — such technology often relies on having a smartphone — and privacy. In March, the state Assembly introduced a similar bill that prohibited such technology from being the only means for entry into an apartment building. While such a change wouldn’t be a full out ban on keyless apartments, it’d likely make landlords think twice about installing such systems.

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A representative for Latch said the company “welcomes any measure that protects residents’ privacy and security. Consistent with the bill, we strongly oppose the required use of biometrics to enter apartments. We also believe credential flexibility is critically important—which is why all of our dwelling-entry products are compatible with multiple credentials including a mechanical key, smartphone, door code, or keycard.”

Two other City Council bills related to the use of facial recognition technology were recently proposed. One requires landlords to provide a registration statement to the city acknowledging the use of biometric recognition technology at their properties, while the other requires that tenants be notified of its use. In May, the state Senate introduced a bill seeking to ban the use of facial recognition technology in residential rental buildings. Two months before that, tenants at Nelson Management’s Plaza Towers had filed a complaint with the state’s housing regulator over the installation of such technology in their complex.

“Landlords’ increasing use of smart keys, facial recognition, biometric scanning, and other technology poses a serious threat to the rights of tenants, one that falls disproportionately on lower-income communities of color who are already subject to greater surveillance in their daily lives,” Council member Brad Lander, the primary sponsor of the key-related bill, said in a statement. “Requiring owners to give every tenant a traditional key, and prohibiting them from requiring the use of tracking technology, are important steps toward preventing landlords from surveilling and intimidating their tenants.”