A Brooklyn landlord intends to install facial recognition technology at the entrance of a roughly 700-unit rent-stabilized complex, raising alarm among tenants and housing rights attorneys about what they say is a far-reaching and egregious form of digital surveillance.
Citing concerns over the potential for privacy and civil liberties violations, tenants at Brownsville’s Atlantic Plaza Towers filed an objection to the plan in January with the state’s Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) agency, which oversees rent-regulated properties.
On Sunday, several tenants told Gothamist that, unbeknownst to them, their landlord, Nelson Management, had sought state approval in July 2018 to install a facial recognition system known as StoneLock. Under state rules, landlords of rent-regulated apartments built before 1974 must seek permission from HCR for any “modification in service.”
Tenants at the two buildings, located at 249 Thomas S. Boyland Street and 216 Rockaway Avenue, said they began receiving notices about the system in the fall. According to its website, Kansas-based company StoneLock offers a “frictionless” entry system that collects biometric data based on facial features.
“We don’t want to be tracked,” said Icemae Downes, a longtime tenant. “We are not animals. This is like tagging us through our faces because they can’t implant us with a chip.”
It is not clear how many New York City apartments are using facial scanning software or how such technology is being regulated. But in a sign of the times, the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development last June began marketing 107 affordable units at a new apartment complex in the South Bronx. Among the amenities listed was "State of the Art Facial Recognition Building Access."
Asked about the use of facial recognition technology in affordable housing, a spokesperson for HPD said, "While we can’t say we’ve seen an uptick in amenities of this sort, we welcome development plans that allow for the marriage of high tech features and affordability."
Mona Patel, one of the attorneys at Brooklyn Legal Services' Tenants Rights Coalition which is representing the tenants, said she had never heard of such a system being used in rent-regulated housing. The apartment buildings, which were built in the late 1960s under the state’s Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program, are home to mostly black residents, with senior women making up a large share.
In their letter to HCR, Patel and her colleagues said that studies have shown that facial recognition technology "disproportionately impacts the elderly, women and people of color." They also noted that the landlord had “made no assurances to protect the data from being accessed by NYPD, ICE, or any other city, state, or federal agency.”
The fact that such a technology is being proposed in a gentrifying section of Brooklyn has only heightened suspicions of harassment among tenants, Patel said. The neighborhood is near East New York, which was rezoned in 2016 and has since undergone a housing development boom.
“The larger picture raised more questions about why the landlord is taking such a drastic step,” she said. “In this building in the middle of this gentrifying neighborhood, you’re installing this particular type of security complex. Why now?”
Across the real estate industry, New York City landlords have increasingly been moving to keyless entry systems, citing convenience as well as a desire to offer enhanced security. Over the years, in response to appeals filed by tenants, HCR has ruled in favor of key fob and card entry systems, saying that such substitutions did not violate rent-stabilization and rent-control laws.
But the latest technology has triggered even more concerns about the ethics of data collection.
Latch, a keyless entry device which offers users the option of accessing their apartments with a phone app, has been installed in more than 1,000 buildings across the city. Last fall, in Hell’s Kitchen, a group of senior loft tenants sued their landlord in Manhattan civil court for installing Latch in a common vestibule area. In addition to privacy concerns, the tenants, at least one of whom doesn’t even have a cell phone, have alleged that such tech-reliant entry methods amount to age discrimination.
Ron Sharpe, 64, one of the plaintiffs in the case, told Gothamist that the new system has prevented him from accessing the building's mailboxes. "I’m on crutches," Sharpe said, adding that he recently had surgery. "I'm looking for mail from doctors."
"It's a bit outrageous," he said.
In response, a Latch spokesman said the tenants were given keycards, which are also supported by the software. The company added that it neither collects nor stores GPS data and it does not share users' personal information with third parties for marketing purposes.
The case prompted Democrat Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Democrat who represents the Upper West Side and parts of Hell’s Kitchen, to introduce legislation last week prohibiting landlords from requiring a smart access system as the only means of entry, as well as limiting the kind of personal data that companies like Latch can collect.
On its website, Nelson Management describes itself as "particularly adept in the ownership/management of Rent Stabilized, Section 8 and Mitchell Lama properties.” Its holdings include Promenade Apartments, a 318-unit rent-stabilized complex in the Bronx, and 275 South Street, a 256-unit mixed-income rental building that it owns with Two Bridges developer L+M.
Nelson purchased Atlantic Plaza Towers in 2007 and proceeded to make $10.5 million in upgrades, according to the company’s website.
Seth Hoy, a spokesman for Legal Services New York, said that since that time there have been nearly 100 eviction cases handled by Brooklyn Legal Services attorneys against Nelson Management. The information regarding StoneLock was brought to them by one of their clients facing eviction.
Surveillance has been an ongoing concern among tenants at the complex. Not long after taking over, Nelson installed security cameras in the two buildings. According to several tenants, the landlord has used the cameras to monitor packages being taken inside the building. Patel said tenants have received emails citing specific description of bags or containers they were seen bringing in, along with a warning that space heaters are not permitted in units. “These tactics feel very much like harassment,” she said, adding that it is illegal for a landlord to ban space heaters.
Nelson and StoneLock did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Last month, the management company reached out to a group of tenants to assuage their concerns about StoneLock. But tenants said the presentation, if anything, only deepened their fears that they were being asked to submit to a technology that had very little research behind it.
“It just feels like you are being pitched a dream and you should accept it for what it,” said tenant Fabian Rogers, adding, “This was not something we asked for at any given time.”
The tenants are yet to receive a response from HCR. One of their complaints is that because they were not promptly notified about the landlord’s application, they were not given enough time to file their objection.
A spokesperson for HCR issued the following comment:
“HCR's Office of Rent Administration evaluates all applications for service modifications, and both owners and tenants have the opportunity to submit relevant information prior to a determination. This application is currently under review, and HCR is committed to providing due process for tenants and owners as required by law.”
Rogers said the entire process has made him feel anxious about his future at the buildings. In order for the facial recognition system to work, residents must submit to an initial scan. Would opting out mean he would no longer be able to access his apartment?
“It makes me think I’m on an eviction ticket out of the apartment complexes,” he said.
UPDATE: Brooklyn Legal Services has provided an update on the number of eviction cases they have handled against Nelson Management. It is nearly 100. The story has also been updated to include responses from Latch, HPD and HCR.