Privately owned buildings get on the surveillance bandwagon

Buildings that don’t have cameras are thinking about getting them. Buildings that do have them are thinking about getting more or upgrading their systems.   Debates about privacy versus security — from airport screening to phone-line tapping and Internet tracking — rage on and on. But in the singular world of New York real estate, there’s no contest. Security rules, and privacy concerns go out the window — the one with the camera attached. Big Brother, come on over and bring your friends.

Where and how many cameras are used in a building can be a source of lengthy cogitation, but ultimately it depends on the topography of a building and the law. Condo and co-op boards are governed by the so-called business judgment rule.
Many boards ponder whether to put cameras in the elevators, said Steven D. Sladkus, a real estate lawyer. “I tell boards that there is no expectation of privacy in elevators or a hallway or a lobby or a basement. Once you’re in a public area, it’s more or less fair game for a camera.”

He recalled that 15 years ago, high-end buildings generally didn’t want cameras in their lobbies. “Residents didn’t want to be photographed. That’s no longer the attitude.” according to Brian McLaughlin, the president of SecureCom.

Brokers might, however, highlight surveillance if their clients are celebrities. “I’ll frequently point to the cameras in the elevator and say, ‘We’re under surveillance right now and it really adds to the security,’ ” said Stuart Moss, a broker at Corcoran.

Building managers say that cameras can serve as a deterrent to crime and offer documentary evidence if the deterrent proves ineffective. As a rule, tapes are preserved for 30 days.

“Detectives will call me fairly often and give me the time frame of an incident and I start reviewing the video.”  said Larry McCool, the resident manager of a co-op in the East 50s.

One property was easily breached by a security team doing reconnaissance in advance of a visit by “a person of prominence within the government,” he said. “The agent got onto the roof of this particular building, then located the resident manager and said, ‘Your building is not very secure.’ ”

A few years ago, a co-op on the Upper East Side upgraded its surveillance equipment “partly to monitor our night man,” said Phil Ginsberg, a longtime member of the board. “Everyone liked him, but he had a history of falling asleep. With the new system we could monitor him. He’s still with the building, but he’s on probation.”

Condo boards are intent on catching residents who are “hoteling” — offering their apartments for short-term rental — and from landlords bent on collaring tenants of rent-stabilized apartments who aren’t being truthful about their primary residence.

Meanwhile, a camera in a condo on Jane Street recorded a couple in the elevator who were “in flagrante delicto,” according to Aaron Shmulewitz, who heads the co-op and condo practice at the law firm Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman. “They were renting from the unit owner,” he said. “Suffice it to say that the board pressured him not to renew their lease.”

At a Midtown East co-op, the residents of the penthouse were expressing concern, said Steven Wagner, the board president,“And now,” he continued, “the owners of the penthouse want to upgrade beyond the cameras and get facial recognition software. We don’t think the additional expense is warranted, but if they want to pay for it, we have no objection.”

“In one building a board member had the ability to access the feed on his computer,” said John Janangelo, an executive at Douglas Elliman Property management. “One or two people in the building objected, saying they didn’t want someone on the board watching them work out in the gym.”

The staff at Mr. Wagner’s building “expressed concern that the cameras were being used to monitor them, and some objected to that,” Mr. Wagner said.

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