housing

My New Apartment’s Most Aggravating Feature

New York homes come with standard headaches. This might be the dumbest one yet.

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty

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I recently rented an apartment in a new Brooklyn building. When I asked the landlord when I could pick up the keys, I got an unexpected answer: There were no keys. Instead of traditional mechanical locks, all of the building’s doors have smart locks made by a company called Latch. To open them, I would need to use an app.

I was immediately filled with dread. The technified versions of historically reliable home components almost always suck. “Smart” lights, doorbells, security cameras, thermostats, etc., are buggy, laggy, overcomplicated, and prone to failing in ways that their analog predecessors never did, even two decades into the Internet-of-Things era.

I also felt tricked. My lease doesn’t say anything about smart locks. The agent who showed me the apartment hadn’t mentioned them, and since Latch’s locks look pretty much like standard ones, I hadn’t noticed them myself. (They have holes for physical keys, but many Latch landlords require tenants to use the app exclusively.)

Even so, I decided not to make a stink. Metal keys are as old as ancient Rome, and while they had served me well in all of my previous apartments, perhaps there was a better way. Smart locks are becoming more popular, and Latch itself has claimed that its devices have been installed in over 1,000 New York buildings. Maybe I would even come to enjoy keyless living. One less thing to carry, I stupidly thought.

Well, here is how things have been going: Every time I arrive at my building’s front door, and then again at the door to my apartment, I have to take out my iPhone, unlock it, pull up the Latch app, and hold the phone over a Bluetooth sensor, usually for two or three seconds but occasionally as long as eight. The whole process takes at least twice as long as it has ever taken me to unlock a normal door. It’s not much time in the general scope of life, granted, but when I’m standing there waiting to be let into my own home, it’s an eternity.

And that’s just when Latch works as it’s supposed to. Sometimes the app freezes and I have to close and restart it before it will activate the sensor. Other times, my phone mistakes the lock for a credit-card reader and launches Apple Pay. Now and then (this tends to happen when my arms are full of perishable groceries or I’m being dragged through my hallway by my impatient dog), the app will log me out and demand that I reenter my email and password before I can open anything. If I forget my phone at home or my battery dies, I have to track down a building-maintenance person to let me in. If I can’t find one, I’m locked out.

I’ve tried using iPhone widgets and shortcuts for faster access to the Latch app, but neither has had any meaningful impact on the amount of time it takes to open my doors. I’ve had some luck using the app’s “tap to unlock” feature, which lets you unlock your door from a few paces away by pressing a button in the app,  but I’ve also screwed up the timing and had my doors relock themselves before I could reach the knob. A neighbor told me he prefers using the Latch app on his Apple Watch, but I don’t want to spend $400 on a gadget that still only works half as well as a key.

To be fair, Latch locks can also be opened with key cards (but my landlord doesn’t offer them) or by punching a seven-digit passcode into a hidden touchscreen. Passcodes are slightly faster than using the app, but in my case, I’d have to memorize two separate codes — one for the main entrance and another for my apartment door — which seems unlikely since I lost the ability to memorize any seven-digit numbers when I bought my first cell phone 23 years ago.

Not only is Latch a poor substitute for keys, it’s a bad intercom system. Visitors to my building have to announce themselves through the app. If my phone is on silent mode or in another room, I might not know when I’m being buzzed. Worse, the app’s clumsy interface and overall fussiness make providing access a crapshoot. Even when I do manage to locate the button that unlocks the main entrance, I usually need to press it a couple times before it works. On evenings around dinnertime, my vestibule is often full of justifiably angry food-delivery people whose customers can’t figure out how to let them inside.

A few of my neighbors have speculated that our Latch system is faulty or incorrectly installed. But in the Apple App store, where the Latch app has a suspiciously high 4.7-out-of-5-star rating, many reviews suggest that the problems we’ve been having are not unique. A sampling: “Bugs are out of control,” “All the 5-star reviews are paid,” “Works properly about 15% of the time,” “Super unreliable considering it’s supposed to replace physical keys,” “Totally pointless invention,” “Doesn’t work anywhere near concrete,” “Horrible product,” “Works less than half the time if you’re lucky,” “DON’T RENT ANYWHERE WITH LATCH,” “Considering leaving my apartment because of Latch.”

In 2019, a group of rent-stabilized tenants in Hell’s Kitchen were so aggravated by Latch that they sued their landlord, who they claim had replaced their building’s decades-old mechanical locks in an attempt to push them out. One resident was 93 and said that because he couldn’t use a cell phone, he’d become trapped in his home. “They were longtime regulated loft tenants and who had physical keys for their entire tenancies,” the group’s lawyer, Michael P. Kozek, tells me. “And then their landlord tried to impose this system on them without their prior consent.” A judge ruled in the residents’ favor and keys were made available again.

But not every landlord wants to torture their tenants. So why bother with smart locks, which on top of everything else are also more expensive than their mechanical counterparts? (The Latch device on my door retails for $750 and requires a $5-per-month subscription. On a typical floor of my building, that’s $6,000 for the locks and another $480 per year for the service.) Latch has a few benefits for building owners. For one, it makes it possible to remotely re-key an apartment door when a person moves in or out, no locksmith required. Latch integrates with most popular property-management software, which can automatically lock residents out forever the second their leases expire.

More important, Latch allows landlords to keep tabs on their tenants. It lets them know every time a renter or guest enters a building’s front door, which in theory makes it more difficult to run an Airbnb, underground casino, or illegal wildlife trade out of one’s rental apartment. Each Latch device keeps a log of when and by whom it’s opened, and main-entrance locks even take pictures of residents as they arrive home. You can imagine how thrilled I was when I discovered the Latch app’s “history” tab, which contains an archive of the worst pictures of me that I have ever seen, shot at gut level through a fish-eye lens while I scowl and fumble my phone.

Of course, for renters, this is outrageously creepy and yet another reason to prefer dumb, forgetful mechanical locks. Why should my landlord and Latch know every time I open my door or have a guest over? Why should there be any electronic record of this at all?

Latch’s privacy policy is only moderately reassuring. It says the company collects no biometric or GPS data from users. Access data is deleted or anonymized after 90 days. Only the logs for locks in buildings’ common spaces (such as the front door) are viewable by landlords and property managers. No data is shared or sold to third parties or advertisers, but Latch “may access, preserve, and disclose any information we store associated with you to external parties to comply in good faith with law enforcement.”

But hacks and data leaks happen all the time. Also, companies sell, rebrand, and change business models, and when they do, privacy policies have been known to become more porous. Latch may not be selling my data today, but what about in a couple years? How much trust do I owe a company whose product I am only inadvertently a user of, and which has only caused me headaches?

Latch was founded in 2014. Early investors included the megalandlords Tishman Speyer and Brookfield Properties, and in 2021, the company went public through a Tishman-sponsored SPAC at a valuation of $1.56 billion. Latch claimed its locks were being installed in one in ten new apartment buildings in the U.S. and predicted its revenues would grow to $877 million by 2025.

Then, in 2022, Latch warned the SEC that some of its recent financial statements had included “material errors and possible irregularities” and “should no longer be relied upon.” Investors sued, alleging that Latch’s sales data and revenue forecasts were largely bogus. According to one lawsuit, the company’s reported earnings were primarily based on “non-binding letters of intent” from buyers “that in reality in no way could lead to the revenue Latch projected.” Also, claimed the suit, Latch “touted technology and products that did not have proof of concept” or “would not be usable or deliverable.”

Last year, in the wake of these revelations, a number of Latch’s executives resigned, including co-founding CEO Luke Shoenfelder, and its stock was delisted from NASDAQ. The company laid off 59 percent of its staff and moved its headquarters from New York to St. Louis.

Because of all this, it’s hard to know how popular Latch’s devices really are. When I asked for an estimate last month, a Latch rep told me, “We previously disclosed that we were installed in 126,746 spaces as of March 31, 2022.” But the source of that number was the company’s 2022 first-quarter financial statement, which Latch subsequently admitted was unreliable. I asked for clarification and did not hear back.

Latch has announced that in 2024 it will rebrand as Door.com under new CEO Jamie Siminoff, inventor of the Ring doorbell. According to the press release, Siminoff plans to launch a new platform that will help housekeepers and dog walkers find clients and access their apartments. To me, that sounds ambitious for a company with a reduced workforce whose current platform already struggles to provide access to apartments for the people who live in them.

But luckily, it’s no longer my problem. Last week, after sending many complaining emails to my landlord, I got the reply I’d long been hoping for: My super will give me a key.

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My New Apartment’s Most Aggravating Feature