Understanding the Key Law

Posted by wasserman

My apartment building has restricted high-security front door keys that tenants are unable to duplicate on their own. One of my tenants who rents the studio apartment with her name only on the lease is asking for an additional key for her boyfriend. Are we obligated to make the extra key? If we gave the boyfriend a key, would he have any basis to claim tenancy rights?

You are obligated to make a duplicate key. The “Keys” section of the local rent ordinance, often referred to as the Key Law, states that a landlord must provide additional key sets to the tenant within fourteen days of the tenant’s request. A tenant may, for example, request additional key sets for service providers, delivery persons, houseguests, or relatives. You may only charge the tenant for the actual duplication costs that you incurred. This law has been on the books since early 2004. If you fail to respond to a request for key duplication, your tenant may file a decrease in services petition with the Rent Board, and expect the rent to be lowered as a result.

Now what if the tenant is subletting to her boyfriend against the terms of the lease? The Key Law permits you to deny a duplication request for unlawful subletting. However, as we know, the rent law was amended last November to essentially permit tenants to bring in additional roommates (up to certain amounts depending on the number of bedrooms) regardless of what the lease allows. In this instance, the tenant may have an additional person occupy the studio with her, so at the end of the day you most likely could not deny this request, although you are permitted to screen him as an applicant.

However, what you should not do is deal directly with the boyfriend during this process. The extra key is to be given directly to your tenant. She is then instructed to reimburse you for its cost and under no circumstance should you engage in a dialogue, written or otherwise, with the guest or subtenant. Otherwise, as the question references, you risk making the boyfriend a co-tenant, and doing so will potentially ruin the ability to impose a market rate rent increase should your tenant move out and leave someone else behind. Secondly, this author does not recommend that you bother to screen the boyfriend and otherwise take steps to formally approve him as a subtenant. The new amendment to the rent law really gives you no room to deny your tenant’s desire to move him into the studio apartment, and engaging in an interactive approval process again permits him to argue years later that he was made a co-tenant and therefore is entitled to your original tenant’s rental rate should she move out.

In sum, please acquaint yourself with the Key Law. Tenants are generally entitled to duplicate key sets if they reimburse you for duplication costs. A legitimate reason to request an additional key set is for a house guest or a lawful subtenant. While this may be a painful reality to accept, it is nevertheless our new reality, and the best position you can take is to entirely distance yourself from any direct interaction with the guest or subtenant.