Real Estate

My Building Has Replaced Our Keys With an App. Is That Legal?

Q: I moved out of New York City to an apartment in New Rochelle. Instead of keys, tenants use a smartphone app to open doors to the building lobby and individual apartments. The app often fails when I use it, but I don’t have a key as a backup. This policy wasn’t disclosed when I signed the lease, which does not mention the lack of keys. Can a building refuse to give residents keys? What about older people without smartphones? Or people with vision issues?

A: So long as you can exit your apartment and the building in an emergency without needing to use the app, the landlord is free to use the digital technology as an alterative to a key. It’s similar to landlords who provide key FOBs or cards in lieu of metal keys, said Alan J. Goldberg, a Manhattan lawyer who represents tenants.

And since smartphones are ubiquitous, it is not unreasonable that your landlord would choose a technology that requires you to have one. “Almost everybody has a smartphone nowadays,” Mr. Goldberg said. “I don’t think the courts would be sympathetic to that” if you challenged the policy.

As you mention, however, the app might not be accessible to tenants with disabilities, like vision or memory impairment, or mobility limitations. A tenant with a disability should notify the landlord of their need for a reasonable accommodation, requesting an alternative to the app, like a traditional key. If the landlord does not comply with the request, the tenant can file a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights.

For everyone else, the app will have to do. But it needs to work, and you mentioned that yours is unreliable. If the system fails, the landlord has to fix it and provide you with an alternative method of entering the building and your apartment. Put your complaints about the problems in writing. If the landlord fails to address them immediately, file a complaint with the New Rochelle bureau of buildings.

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