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My building replaced our keys with an app. Is this legal?

Q: I moved from New York City to an apartment in New Rochelle. Instead of keys, tenants use a smartphone app to unlock doors to the building’s lobby and individual apartments. The app often fails when I use it, but I don’t have a key as a backup. This policy was not disclosed when I signed the lease, which did not mention no keys. Can a building refuse to give keys to residents? What about the elderly who do not have smartphones? Or people with vision problems?

a: As long as you can exit your apartment and building in an emergency without having to use the app, the landlord is free to use digital technology as a key substitute. It’s similar to landlords who provide keys or key cards instead of metal keys, said Alan Goldberg, a Manhattan attorney who represents tenants.

And since smartphones are so ubiquitous, it’s not unreasonable for your landlord to opt for a technology that requires you to own one. “Almost everyone has a smartphone nowadays,” Goldberg said. “I don’t think the courts will be sympathetic to that” if you challenge the policy.

However, as you mentioned, the app may not be available to renters with disabilities, such as poor eyesight, memory, or limited mobility. A disabled tenant must notify the landlord of their need for reasonable accommodation, and request an alternative to apply, such as a traditional key. If the landlord does not comply with the request, the tenant can file a complaint with the New York State Department of Human Rights.

For everyone else, the app will have to do that. But it needs work, and you mentioned that your work is unreliable. If the system fails, the landlord is required to fix it and provide you with an alternative way to enter the building and your apartment. Write your complaint about the problems in writing. If the landlord fails to remedy it promptly, file a complaint with the New Rochelle Buildings Office.

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