Brownsville tenants say facial recognition tech is a ploy for gentrification

May 1, 2019 Noah Goldberg
Icemae Downes denounces her landlord's request to use facial recognition technology to gain entry into her Brownsville apartment building. Eagle photo by Noah Goldberg.
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Brownsville tenants whose landlord is trying to install a facial recognition entry system to their rent-regulated buildings filed their legal opposition Wednesday morning.

The tenants gathered to voice their concerns outside the offices of the New York State Homes & Community Renewal (NYSHCR), which has the power to approve or reject the request of the landlord – Nelson Management Group, run by president Robert Nelson. Tenants cited privacy issues as well as concerns over the technology’s ability to recognize the faces of black women, which they say point to the landlord’s attempt to appeal to gentrifiers.

“It’s an invasion of our privacy and this system does not really accurately scan women of color’s faces,” said Icemae Downes, a tenant who has lived in Atlantic Towers for more than 50 years. “It is predominately women of color who live in our development. The landlord is doing this for future tenants because East New York is going through gentrification.”

Atlantic Towers is made up of two buildings with a total of 718 units. Landlords of rent-regulated apartments built before 1974 are required to apply through NYSHCR for any modification of service.

NYSHCR confirmed this is the first application for a modification of service for facial recognition technology their office has ever handled.

“HCR’s Office of Rent Administration today received Brooklyn Legal Services’ objections on behalf of the tenants to the owner’s application for service modifications, and this application continues to remain under review,” said Charni Sochet, a spokesperson with NYSHCR.

Tenants say they already use key fobs at two different doors to access their buildings, and that increased security is unnecessary.

“As far as we understand, this is the first time a landlord is seeking permission from the New York State Homes & Community Renewal to install facial recognition technology. So it’s unprecedented,” said Samar Katnani, deputy director of the tenant’s rights coalition of Brooklyn Legal Services. Katnani represents 134 tenants in their opposition to the new technology.

Katnani said Nelson Management Group is requesting to use a system developed by StoneLock, a facial recognition technology company.

While it’s unclear how many residential buildings in the city use facial recognition technology, one 107-unit, low-income development in the Bronx offered apartments with “State of the Art Facial Recognition Building Access,” in summer 2018.

“There is no adequate law or court that can protect tenants from any data breaches,” Katnani said. “The tenants should have consent over providing this and who they provide it to.”

“Residents should not have to live in fear that landlords are tracking their comings and goings and amassing sensitive data on tenants and their guests,” the New York Civil Liberties Union said in a letter supporting the tenant’s opposition.

According to Nelson Management Group’s website, they purchased the building in 2006 and did $10.5 worth of “capital improvements.”

“Nelson Management Group prioritizes identifying and implementing cutting edge technology at all our properties to create a safer environment for tenants and provide the highest-quality housing in the rent-stabilized market. The sole goal of implementing this technology is to advance that priority and support the safety and security of residents,” the group said in a statement.

Tenants cited the work of Joy Buolamwini, a researcher with M.I.T. Media Lab, who found that some facial recognition systems misidentified the gender of “darker-skinned females” 35 percent of the time – but just 1 percent of the time for “lighter-skinned males.”

“In a community whose residents are known to be discriminated upon and over-policed, this technology does not sit well,” said Tranae Moran, who lives in one of the towers.

Update (6:00 p.m.): This story was updated to include a statement from Nelson Management Group and a statement from the New York State Homes & Community Renewal.

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