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Facial recognition planned for Brooklyn apartment building outrages tenants

One resident wondered why the landlord targeted "a development that is predominantly Afro-Americans in East New York."

The Atlantic Plaza Towers Tenant Association is urging

The Atlantic Plaza Towers Tenant Association is urging Homes and Community Renewal to provide it with more time to oppose an application for a biometric security system. Photo Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Alarmed by their landlord's attempt to install a biometric security system in their development, Atlantic Plaza Towers tenants are pushing a state agency to register privacy concerns raised by the facial-recognition technology.

The Atlantic Plaza Towers Tenant Association is urging Homes and Community Renewal, the state agency overseeing rent-regulated housing, to provide it with more time to oppose an application for a biometric security system submitted by its landlord, Nelson Management Group. The tool would scan faces and admit those who match resident profiles — a prospect that has tenants worried about the accuracy of technology and about their location being tracked and shared. HCR acknowledged Nelson Management Group had submitted the first considered application to modify service in a rent-regulated building for facial recognition equipment, but would not indicate when it would issue a decision. 

"He owns 12 developments. Why did he target a development that is predominantly Afro-Americans in East New York to test — and predominantly women that live in the development — to test," said Icemae Downes, noting her landlord owns several other developments. "Why is he preying on our community?"

The StoneLock facial recognition takes under a minute to enroll in and uses near-infrared wavelengths to capture properties like shape and reflectivity beneath the skin, according to a flyer shared by a spokesman for Nelson Management Group. About 5 percent of users' facial information is mapped out in a way that cannot be imitated or recognized by the human eye. The data are then encrypted and stored on a StoneLock Gateway server that would never leave the control of Nelson Management Group, according to the flyer. 

“Nelson Management Group prioritizes identifying and implementing cutting edge technology at all our properties to create a safer environment for tenants. The sole goal of implementing this technology is to advance that priority," Chris Santarelli, a spokesman for the landlord, said in a statement. "We appreciate engagement from tenants on this matter and look forward to feedback from (HCR)."

The slog against the security system comes after the Ocean Hill tenants said that Nelson Management Group has instituted other invasive policies. They said the landlord required that residents be photographed before getting keys to new mailboxes and has sent notices referencing what residents were seen carrying home on security cameras. Residents said tensions have escalated as the landlord opted not to discuss the security system plans ahead of submitting the application. Staff have taken steps to curtail related tenant organizing, they said, which culminated in a security guard calling the police on people handing out flyers in the lobby this weekend. 

"They just disqualify us as people who live here," said Johnnymae Robinson, 59, who has lived in the towers for 50 years. "We're stakeholders here. We're not just staying here to stay here … This is where we raised our children; some people raised their grandchildren, and some people have great grandchildren."

In July, Nelson Management Group applied to install a StoneLock face recognition entry system in the towers, located at 216 Rockaway Ave. and 249 Thomas S. Boyland St. in Brooklyn. HCR provided residents 20 days to respond to notices about the applications, but the paperwork was delivered erratically, with some residents receiving it after the deadline had passed and others only learning about the plan from neighbors, tenants said.

The tenant association then unanimously voted against the proposal, according to its president, Patricia Winston. 

As residents' responses began filtering in at HCR, Nelson Management Group sent a security point-person to meet with residents in February, according to Winston and other tenants. 

The landlord reiterated in February that information would never be shared to a third party without a court order, according to Santarelli. He said residents would not be given the option to opt out of security protocols, which he said was a standard practice. 

But attendees said they left the gathering with unanswered questions.

"Management kind of looked at us as if you should be grateful to have this sort of security technology in here, rather than asking us if we wanted it or if we were even comfortable," said Fabian Rogers, 23. "What's the point of paying rent if all of the major decisions in the building have nothing that involves you in the process?" 

Councilwoman Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who represents the area, wrote to HCR requesting that the agency take the time to thoroughly weigh residents' concerns. In January, Brooklyn Legal Services, a program of Legal Services NYC, sent a similar memo, highlighting research showing that facial recognition technology is less accurate in assessing the elderly, women and people of color. The correspondence, which lawyers said was signed by 400 residents, raised questions about whether movement tracking could be used in eviction proceedings or could be accessed by NYPD, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other government agencies.

“These rent-stabilized tenants should not be forced to choose between giving their landlord control of their biometric data and keeping their homes, especially in a gentrifying neighborhood where affordable housing is hard to come by,” Mona Patel, an attorney with Legal Services NYC’s Tenant Rights Coalition, said in a statement. “Tenants are rightfully concerned …"

HCR did not directly respond when asked when a decision could be expected. Once the agency's Office of Rent Administration issues an order on the matter, both tenants and the owner could challenge it, HCR said.

“This application is currently under review, and HCR is committed to providing due process for tenants and owners as required by law," HCR spokeswoman Charni Sochet said in a statement.

The two towers, which are home to some 715 households, were previously in the Mitchell-Lama program targeting middle class families. In early 2016, Nelson Management Group signed a regulatory agreement, which required that units be rent-stabilized for 35 years, even if their rents reach the threshold at which they could otherwise enter the general market. Under the stabilization program, rents can be increased when money is invested in upgrading units and when they are vacated, which has led some residents to believe the landlord has an incentive to promote turnover.

Robinson estimated she had seen 10 families move out amid what she and others described as an intrusive management style. She said she received notifications after her son came home with a freezer, reminding her of related rules. Downes shared similar concerns about the surveillance cameras, saying she got a memo after bringing home a heater. 

Santarelli did not directly address tenants' claims about the photographs, but said the landlord renovated lobbies and added package rooms this January. He noted that the turnover rate has dropped to 2.56 percent, when it was an average of 5.19 percent from 2008 to 2015. 

Correspondences started to include warnings about loitering when tenants began going door-to-door to ensure neighbors knew about the proposed security system and distributing information about it in the lobby, residents said. 

This weekend, groups composed of tenants and one attorney approached residents in the lobby of both buildings and were told to leave by security guards, the attorneys said. The crews converged at 216 Rockaway Ave., where the lawyers said they reminded staff that tenants have the right to organize and meet in the building. Management called the police, which the legal team said demanded that those gathered go into the community room, where they could not approach those entering or leaving the development.

The NYPD said police responded at 11:14 a.m. to a call about a dispute at the building and determined no crime had been committed. Police said the department does not have any record of summonses or arrests at that address. 

Santarelli said staff called police because an "outside group" was blocking tenants' access to the building without a formal request.

(Alison Fox)

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