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Can My Landlord Put Locks in My Apartment That I Can’t Open?

Q: I am renting a condo in a large Manhattan building. The bedrooms and one of the closets have deadbolt locks that can only be locked or unlocked with a key from the outside. The landlord will not give us keys to the locks. This seems like a serious safety issue, especially if there are children living in the apartment. Are these types of locks allowed on bedroom doors? If so, is the landlord required to provide us with a key to each lock? She has also suggested that if we want these locks removed, we will have to pay for that.

A: A bedroom door cannot have a lock that requires a key to use it, as that would be a violation of the city’s building code. Moreover, it is illegal to obstruct a fire escape or fire exit, so if any of the bedrooms have a fire escape, these locks also violate fire rules.

It’s absurd that the landlord refuses to give you the keys, but really, the locks shouldn’t be there at all. A child could certainly lock the deadbolt and get trapped alone inside a room (that actually happened to my son when he was a toddler — it took us nearly an hour to explain to him how to turn the lock.)

“The landlord should remove locks that require keys on bedroom doors, and cannot charge the tenant,” said David A. Kaminsky, a Manhattan real estate lawyer.

Give the landlord written notice demanding that she change the locks to comply with city rules. Advise her that if she fails to do so, you will hire a handyman or locksmith to remove the locks and replace them with new unkeyed doorknobs. Take photographs of the locks, keep the receipts for the labor and materials, and deduct the cost from your rent.

I can’t imagine why the landlord added a lock to the closet door. However, you may have less leverage in pressuring her to remove it, assuming the closet doesn’t have a window that could be used as an escape route in a fire. If you can’t use the closet because it is locked, you may be able to make a case for a rent abatement because part of the apartment is unusable, according to Mr. Kaminsky.

You may also want to alert the condo to the situation, as the condo might have rules about locks on doors. Call the managing agent and explain the situation, expressing your concerns about fire safety.

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