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A Ruling on Security And Tenant Privacy

Published: August 28, 2005

THE office of the New York City district administrator of the state's Division of Housing and Community Renewal ruled this month that landlords can require tenants to use electronic key cards with photos on them to enter their buildings. But the state agency also said landlords cannot put any personal data - including tenants' names - on the card.

The decision involves a landlord-tenant debate that has become increasingly contentious: when does enhanced security infringe on tenants' rights? The ruling was stayed pending an appeal to the commissioner.

"Enhanced security has been a general theme in American society subsequent to the 2001 terrorist attacks," the decision said.

The office also ruled that keeping track of those who enter or exit a building does not violate rent laws, but added that this decision did not determine whether tracking tenants is an invasion of privacy, because that determination is outside its jurisdiction.

The rulings arose from an effort by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to issue electronic key cards to residents and some of their guests at the company's 2,700-unit Peter Cooper Village complex, between First Avenue and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive and 20th and 23rd Streets in Manhattan.

Jack L. Lester, a Manhattan lawyer who represented the tenants, said that in March, MetLife decided to replace metal keys with electronic key cards that bore a picture of the tenant along with the tenant's name. The landlord, he said, originally indicated that it would issue guest cards - specifically for guests to enter the building in the absence of the tenant - that would contain a photo and the name of each guest. Guests arriving when a tenant is home would simply be buzzed in, as before.

"The tenants were very upset by this new procedure," Mr. Lester said. "They considered it a blatant invasion of privacy."

The tenants sought an order in State Supreme Court barring the landlord from instituting the changes. In April, Justice Rolando Acosta allowed MetLife to replace the metal keys with electronic cards, but issued an interim order prohibiting it from including a photo or any other identifying information. He sent the case to the state agency to determine whether the use of cards, photos or identifying information violated rent laws.

In its ruling, on Aug. 15, the agency office noted that while the tenants had said the landlord's plan constituted a significant change in the terms of the tenancy, the owner's lawyer, Daniel J. Ansell, indicated to the court that all that was needed to get a key card was a valid photo ID as proof of identity, and verification of tenant and occupant information - including Social Security numbers - already in the landlord's possession. The lawyer also said that the photo ID would not be retained by the landlord. (Mr. Ansell declined to comment for this article.)

The agency office ruled that while an owner can demand proof of identity before issuing a card, the owner cannot require verification of the Social Security number of anyone other than those who have given him a security deposit; cannot demand Social Security numbers for the issuance of guest cards; and cannot put any personal data - including the name of the tenant - on the card.

Maurice Mann, chief executive of Mann Realty Associates, a Manhattan company that owns and manages residential buildings, said owners have an obligation to protect tenants' security.

But Lucas Ferrara, a Manhattan lawyer who represents tenants and landlords, noted that "the procedures used to record the comings and goings of building occupants can also be used to expose tenants illegally subletting their apartment or not using it as a principal residence."