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Your keys and the Landlord; Access issues

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Your keys and the Landlord; Access issues

Postby TenantNet » Wed Feb 04, 2009 12:57 pm

Also see the thread on NY Access laws at viewtopic.php?t=4837

The Shareholder Versus the Board
Battling to Retain Duplicate Keys

By Ann Malaspina
The Cooperator
July 1996

When it comes to key security, most co-op shareholders and other tenants have no choice but to trust in their building manager. That's because New York state law requires tenants to provide landlords with duplicate keys, if requested. Whether that key goes into a locked box in the superintendent's office, hangs in an open cabinet next to the doorman or is placed in a high-tech key management system depends on building policy.

Upper East Side co-op shareholder Linda Stromberg learned this lesson the hard way over the past year, as she waged a losing battle with her co-op board to retain control over the keys to her apartment. While her case may not be typical, it points to the troubling problem of key security.

It's the Law -- New York State's Multiple Dwelling Law, Section 51-C, gives tenants the right to install and maintain a separate lock from the original installed by the building, but the law also requires that the tenant provide a duplicate key to the landlord or the landlord's agent, if it is requested. Most co-op boards, through their regulations and proprietary leases also require shareholders to provide duplicate keys.

You can have a situation where someone is gone and has a second lock on the door. They left the water on. There's a leak in the pipe, damage to the apartment below, and you don't have a key, explains Edward Braverman, a Manhattan real estate attorney. Landlords have traditionally insisted on getting a duplicate key to an apartment.

While tenants might worry that providing their landlord with duplicate keys could compromise their privacy and security, Braverman says it is the price you pay for living in a building with other people. If you want total security, you buy a private house and buy all the locks you want. The moment you live with other people, you give up certain rights for the benefit of community living and living in a multiple dwelling, he says. You should have a right to privacy, but you don't have the right to impede emergency repairs to a building.

Fear of Unwanted Entries

As is true in most housing disputes, the two sides in the case of 111 Tenants Corporation v. Stromberg offer different perspectives. While Stromberg paints the picture of a single professional woman who felt unsafe in her own home, the board, through its attorney, describes an unreasonable shareholder who wanted special considerations, including changes in the proprietary lease.

According to Stromberg and her attorney, Thomas P. Higgins, a partner with the Manhattan-based firm Saxe & Higgins, the trouble began last spring when she raised questions about the building's management with her co-op board at 111 East 75th Street, where she has lived since 1987. Stromberg, a chartered financial analyst, is a senior vice president and director of research at M. R. Beal & Co., an investment bank located in Manhattan. Our building had a lot of problems that I brought to the attention of the board, she said in a recent interview, citing the lack of audited financial statements and the infrequency of annual board meetings.

Soon after Stromberg complained, she believed she was threatened by the building superintendent. Stromberg says that following an incident when a strange man entered the building without a key, the superintendent told her that she was not safe taking out her garbage. She perceived this as a threat. Even before this occurred, Stromberg had been uncomfortable with the superintendent entering her apartment on errands using the duplicate key. He would literally walk into my apartment anytime he pleased, even when I was in the shower, says Stromberg.

However, the board's attorney, Jonathan Z. Minikes, denies any problems with the superintendent whom he describes as a longtime, trusted employee. There's never been a complaint about the superintendent, " says Minikes.

The board later told the court that the superintendent has worked in the building for 35 years and enjoys a good relationship with residents, who appreciate that he will deliver mail, laundry and UPS packages inside the apartments.

Seeking a Compromise

To feel more secure, Stromberg put some possessions in storage, raised her apartment insurance, changed the locks on her door and refused to give duplicates of the new keys to the superintendent. The board responded last June by insisting she provide a duplicate key. Stromberg offered to give the key in a tamper-proof plastic box called Keysure (see sidebar). The board initially approved the idea, but the two sides could not agree on when the box could be opened. [The co-op board] disagreed that it could only be used in an emergency. They said it could be used in a non-emergency circumstance. But Stromberg didn't want the superintendent to come into her apartment, says Higgins.

In fact, the co-op's proprietary lease states that the lessor and its agents and their authorized workmen shall be permitted to visit, examine or enter the apartment...at any reasonable hour of the day upon notice, or at any time and without notice in case of emergency. The lease requires that tenants who change a lock immediately provide a duplicate of the new key to the building. Paragraph 25 of the lease has language requiring the tenant to turn over the keys to the apartment door without any curtailment. The co-op can use it on notice or in an emergency without notice. That apparently wasn't enough [for Ms Stromberg], says Minikes.

He adds that the board was willing to try to accommodate her request to use Keysure. The co-op was not looking to litigate, he says. But her other demands, such as that the duplicate key only be used in emergencies and no additional copies of the key would be made, went too far, he says.

Sending a Clear Message

By December 1995, Stromberg was in civil court trying to hold on to her co-op, after the board had initiated proceedings to terminate her rights to the proprietary lease. On April 10, Civil Court Judge Eileen Bransten granted summary judgment against Stromberg, without hearing oral arguments. Stromberg's willful failure to surrender a duplicate key without conditions, as is required by the clear terms of the proprietary lease constitutes a violation of a substantial obligation of her tenancy, the decision stated. Bransten gave Stromberg ten days to hand over the keys; otherwise, she would lose her co-op.

Stromberg gave the building duplicates of her keys, but Higgins said she is appealing the decision. For now, the message to shareholders and tenants is clear. [The finding] further establishes a landlord's right to a key, says Minikes. The decision also supports a board's right to exercise its own business judgment and enforce the rules of the co-op which, according to Minikes, Specifically has the self-government prerogative that shareholders need to recognize. Higgins insists the court did not adequately take into account his client's fears for her security and safety. Can you compel somebody to give over their keys? The judge says yes, Higgins states. Yet, he points out, Stromberg's case is unique. If you don't understand her concern about the superintendent, then it doesn't make sense that she would not give the key. He adds, The court said that if he comes in, she can sue him for trespass. Well, that should be comforting to every single woman who lives in Manhattan.

There have been only a few court cases in recent years about duplicate keys, probably because tenants realize they have little choice but to comply with the law and their leases. This is New York City and people are scared. They feel they have a right to privacy and protection in their own homes, says Braverman. But when you live in a multiple dwelling, you give up some of your rights, [including] your right to complete privacy. Nevertheless, Higgens insists that Stromberg's concerns are legitimate. He says, I don't think Linda is by any means any different from the average co-op shareholder who views her apartment as her home.

What's New in Key Management

Residential key management has come a long way from the days when the superintendent dangled an overloaded key ring from his back pocket. The traditional sheet metal cabinet or key lock box, with dozens of keys hanging on peg boards, has been transformed into microprocessor-based systems which limit access to keys to authorized individuals, and allow for electronic tracking. Morse Watchman developed its KeyWatcher and KeyBank key management systems in the early 1990s. Starting at about $2,700, these systems are contained in stainless steel cabinets with high security locks. Each key in the Morse Watchman cabinets is attached to a smartkey which slides into a specific location. To release a key, you punch in your personal code. The system then records who took the key and when it was returned. According to Morse Watchman vice president Fernando Pires, electronic key boxes are useful in residential buildings because of the system's detailed tracking reports and alarm notification when a missing key is not returned at the set time.

Replacing Security Envelopes

Many residences still use security envelopes to store duplicate keys, but they are not exactly tamper-proof. No one thinks twice about tearing them open, says Leonardo Sideri, a New York entrepreneur and designer who developed Keysure, a simple two-piece plastic box large enough to store keys and access cards. The keyless box snaps shut, and to gain access to its contents, it has to be broken open. Once broken, the Keysure box cannot be put back together again. The key-owner also signs the inside and outside panels of the box. You put the key into the Keysure container, close it, put your signature on it. The landlord has to break the container, which indicates he has used the key, says Sideri. It protects you, and it protects him from false accusations. The cost is about $1,000 for a 100-unit building. The Keysure product is foolproof, adds Perry Krieger, resident manager at Liberty Terrace Condominium, at 380 Rector Place, who keeps Keysure boxes with copies of the building's master key at the front desk. The keys are definitely secure. To open a box, residents pay $10 and sign their name. They are accompanied to their apartment with the doorman or maintenance person. The box is usually broken because a resident has misplaced his key or an approved guest or contractor needs to get into an apartment. Most of the time it's due to forgetfulness, says Krieger, who adds that the only complaint from residents relates to the $10 user fee. But Krieger responds that, without Keysure, they would be paying $150 minimum for a locksmith if they needed to get into their apartment at night when the maintenance man was off-duty.

If It's Not Broke...

Some buildings still rely on tried-and-true systems, such as the Lund Key Cabinet, little changed since it was first sold in the 1940s. The locked cabinets, accessed by a master key, use a combination of key tags, key receipt cards, collection envelopes and a key record book, kept in a separate secured location. A cabinet sized for a 100-unit building would cost about $252, says Anne Johann, order department representative at Lund Equipment Company in Bath, Ohio. We haven't looked into electronic systems. Mr. Lund feels that if it's not broke c34 , don't fix it, says Johann. According to Johann, company president B. Howard Lund, son of founder E.J. Lund, still comes to work every day, even as he approaches his 90th birthday.

Whatever key management system is used, a building needs a written security policy. Sideri, who was disappointed that Linda Stromberg and her co-op board could not agree on how to use the Keysure box, emphasizes that the policy must be equitable for both landlord and tenant. For example, tenants must know where the Keysure boxes are kept and who has access to them. The buck stops somewhere. Without a sound policy, you have nothing, he says. However, despite new products on the market, many buildings wait for a security crisis before taking action. It doesn't matter who you speak to in property management, keys are a problem. Do any of them do anything about it? Not really, says Sideri. A good key system will promote harmony in a building. The last thing any building needs is the suspicion that the guy in the basement is a crook.

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Denying A Request For Keys

Postby TenantNet » Wed Feb 04, 2009 12:58 pm

February 18, 1996
Denying A Request For Keys
New York Times

A few months ago Loraine Ballard changed the locks on the door to her Manhattan co-op. Shortly thereafter, the co-op's board asked for a duplicate set of keys. Ms. Ballard balked at the request.

The board then demanded a $500 security deposit -- to be used in the event the door is damaged in an emergency.

They're saying that if I don't hand over the keys or the money, they're going to take me to court," Ms. Ballard said. "What is this? Can they force you to hand over your keys? Can they punish you if you don't?"

This is community living. They probably can. They probably will.

"When you don't supply your key you're really being very selfish," said Edward T. Braverman, a Manhattan lawyer who specializes in co-ops and condominiums. "You're putting other people's property at risk to protect your own."

Assuming for a moment that such behavior is unreasonable -- and there are many who would argue to the contrary -- most city-dwellers would happily endure being called selfish if that is all it would take to keep uninvited strangers out of their apartments.

But there is something even more compelling than altruism to inspire tenants to part with their keys: It's the law.

"The state's multiple-dwelling law requires that tenants have to provide their landlords with duplicate keys to their apartments if the landlord asks for them," said Mr. Braverman. "And since a co-op shareholder is really just a tenant in a multiple dwelling owned by the the co-op, the shareholder has the same obligation as any other tenant to provide a duplicate key if the landlord demands one."

In fact, Mr. Braverman said, most proprietary leases contain a provision that specifically requires shareholders to provide the board or managing agent with keys to their apartments. Moreover, he said, many leases contain a provision that makes noncompliance a cause for eviction.

"And the courts will enforce it," Mr. Braverman said.

But would a board of directors really take a shareholder to court over a key dispute?

"We're scheduled for trial on Tuesday," said William J. Gribben, a Manhattan lawyer who represents a shareholder in an Upper East Side co-op who is being evicted for not turning over the key to her apartment. "The case is hot and heavy."

Linda Stromberg, the shareholder in question, said that she had offered the co-op's board of directors a key to her apartment, subject to certain conditions. Instead of just giving them a key, Ms. Stromberg wanted to provide a key sealed inside a small plastic box. That way, she reasoned, she would be able to periodically inspect the box to determine if anyone had used the key.

Another condition of her offer, she said, was that the board agree only to use the key in the event of an emergency. The board rejected her suggestion. "It's pure lunacy," she said.

Indeed, few tenants or tenant-shareholders would object to a landlord's or building management employee's entering an apartment in the event of an emergency. In fact, in a real emergency, it would be considered reasonable to break down the door if a key were not available.

But, as Ms. Stromberg and Ms. Ballard both pointed out to their boards, if there is an emergency, and it's absolutely necessary to get into the apartment, then go ahead and break the door down. But if there isn't an emergency, why not just make an appointment?

"Don't I have a right to privacy?" asked Ms. Ballard. "Can they just walk in willy-nilly?"

Larry Vitelli, director of operations for Kreisel Company, a Manhattan property management and real estate company, said that in most cases the justification for entering an apartment in a tenant's absence falls somewhere between willy-nilly and emergency.

"What happens when someone smells gas coming from the apartment, or hears water running -- do you break the door down?" Mr. Vitelli asked. In just such cases a key to the apartment is most necessary, he said, and provides the most protection to the shareholder. "People get pretty upset when they come home and there's no door on their apartment," he said.

Most real estate management experts say that the solution to key disputes is to develop a system that provides residents with the maximum degree of confidence and security.

"The worst situation is where the super has a drawer full of keys with the apartment number on each key," Mr. Vitelli said. "And you'd be surprised how many buildings have systems not much better than that."

One effective and relatively inexpensive system that his company has used, he said, involves keeping individual keys in sealed envelopes marked with code numbers that correspond to different apartments. The envelopes are then kept in a locked cabinet in the management office or the superintendent's apartment.

By keeping the keys in sealed envelopes signed by the shareholders, Mr. Vitelli said, residents can inspect the envelopes to insure that the key hasn't been used. Another system that is used in some buildings consists of small vaults -- one for each apartment. Each vault has a combination lock with the combination known only to the shareholder-tenant and to the building management.

An even more elaborate, and more expensive, solution is called Key Trak, a computerized key-security system. Mark Queen, president of the Manhattan-based company that sells the system, said that it consists of a computer terminal that sits on top of a series of electronic drawers.

Each drawer can contain 240 keys or sets of keys. Before any key can be removed, he said, a special access card -- which is only given to authorized employees -- must be used to release the key. In addition, by electronically reading a chip on a tag riveted to the key, the computer keeps track of how long the key has been out of the drawer and when it was returned.

The Key Trak system, Mr. Queen said, is usually leased to buildings for about $240 a month. David Kuperberg, president of Cooper Square Realty, a Manhattan property management company, said that while he believed that it was in a shareholder's best interest to give a duplicate key to building management, he did not advocate taking shareholders who refuse a request to court.

"It's like cutting off your finger for a hangnail," he said. "I would do whatever I can do to compromise instead of going to court. And if I don't get a compromise or a key, I write a letter to the shareholder and say that if there's a problem, we're going to break your door down and you're going to be responsible for the cost to repair it."

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