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17 Sep
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Can My Landlord Charge for Spare Keys?

Q: I am a rent-stabilized tenant living in a Manhattan building with a mix of rent-stabilized and market-rate apartments. We have new management, which recently instituted a strange rule: Tenants will be charged $50 if they need to retrieve their own keys from the front desk. (They get one free retrieval.) We are no longer allowed to leave keys for family members, dog walkers, care givers or other visitors. Is it legal to charge tenants for the use of keys that they provided to the landlord?

A: Landlords keep tenants’ keys for emergencies. If, say, water is leaking into or out of your apartment when you’re not home, the landlord needs to get in. If you are locked out accidentally, a spare set of keys will save you a call to a locksmith.

Anything beyond that is a courtesy, and one with potential pitfalls. The building’s new owners may have looked at the long-term arrangement and seen reason for concern. When keys come and go from the front desk, handed off to house cleaners, friends and other visitors, there is a chance that one could go missing. Did the dog walker forget to hand the keys back to the doorman, or did the doorman misplace them?

“That’s a security problem,” said Dan Wurtzel, the president of FirstService Residential New York, a property manager. “If there is a mix-up with those keys and somebody said they left the key and they didn’t, now there is a security issue and we have to change the locks.”

However, such a rule does have limits. A tenant who is older or disabled may have caregivers who need to be able to readily access the apartment. If the new rule does not take that into consideration and make reasonable accommodations, those tenants could potentially file a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, according to Samuel J. Himmelstein, a Manhattan real estate lawyer.

Rent-stabilized tenants could argue that the old policy was a required service and so the change amounts to a reduction of services. Those tenants could apply to the state for rent reductions because of the loss of the building-wide service. If they win and management decides to revoke the new policy rather than selectively enforce it, the entire building could benefit. “This is an example where the market tenants could ride the backs of the stabilized tenants,” Mr. Himmelstein said.

But such a claim is not ironclad. Generally, the state steps in when tenants lose major services, like their only working elevator or gas for their stoves. In your case, the state could argue that while you did lose a service, the loss was not consequential enough to warrant a rent reduction.

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