The Shareholder Versus the Board Battling to Retain Duplicate Keys

The Shareholder Versus the Board

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 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 ffb 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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  • An easy solution for Ms. Stromberg would be to install a security bar that can be in place when she is inside the apartment. That will ensure her privacy while there. What I find in these situations is that emotions get high and paranoia escalates creating no space for compromise. Ultimately, the owner run building does not work. Outside management by competent professionals, overseen by the board, is the best solution. It provides a buffer between shareholders and the board, and also generally saves the building money because pros are in charge of repairs and hiring.
  • this is so wrong. I am a coop owner and had given keys to my management office when I first moved in. As a result my engagement and wedding ring was stolen and the theif had keys as he locked the door when he left. The police were convinced that it was an 'inside job' yet I had no law to get. We should have the right to feel safe in our homes especially when we are paying the wages of those who take from us.
  • This case is from 1995. I guess things were different then. I’m young. Now I’m about to change the locks on my apartment to a 3 in 1 Smart lock with fingerprint, number pad and a key. I am having issues with my super and have concerns about personal safety, but I fully plan to comply with the law and give him a duplicate key immediately. I’m guessing the difference between 1995 and now 2018 is Technology. I have several cameras in and smart door alarms in my apartment. If the super open my front door, not only will I see him in the camera, but notifications to my iPhone whenever the front doors open records the time and date when it was open. I sleep with the camera on in my bedroom 24/7 ( I keep the fire escape window closed and locked at all times, but burglars have been known to get in that way ) it records, has motion detection and person detection. I would feel the same way this lady did in 1995 especially without all the current technology that I have to keep myself safe. As much as I’m having issues with the super he can have the duplicate key. He knows he’s being recorded once he enters my apartment. My Right!
  • My building has one of the secured-tracking lockboxes. Yet the landlord says the nighttime security company doesn't have 'access' to them. So he needs an additional key. He puts those keys in an unlocked drawer at the doorman's desk. With tags clearly showing the apartment. Meaning any new/replacement/temp doorman can simply swipe a handful and no one would be the wiser. The doorman often go on bathroom breaks so any delivery person, visitor or client of any of the lobby businesses could likewise swipe the keys. Is this a violation of any NY laws as it seems entirely insecure, especially given the existence of the lockbox.