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Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



My Neighbor, My Doorman

Your building’s front door stands alone, throughout the harshest of seasons and the longest of nights. Unmanned, no guard stands watch against unwelcome visitors.

But does the absence of a doorman mean you and your neighbors must be vulnerable? Not necessarily. There are security systems on the market that will help protect your property. More importantly, there are different approaches you can take to make sure your building is safe.

Security is about attitude. If there is no doorman, then the owners who live in the property are all doormen and doorwomen. The only thing standing between your home and crime is the vigilance of everyone.

“You really have to educate tenants because that’s where security starts,” observes Michael Wolfe, president of Manhattan-based Midboro Management. “You can spend a million dollars on a security system but find it’s irrelevant if people are not sensitive to security issues.”


Different buildings take different approaches to security issues. Among the more common:

Intercom blackout. This involves disconnecting the intercom so residents have to physically go to the front door and admit visitors. Board member Stuart Gold’s 26-unit TriBeCa loft co-op has had such a set-up in place for over ten years.

“The feeling was, especially with kids in the building and housekeepers and nannies, that we couldn’t expect everyone to make sure to identify who was at the door,” Gold notes. “It has met with some resistance, especially from newcomers. But, in a loft building, we decided it was a good way to build security. It’s a small inconvenience for a high upside on security.”

Before instituting such a plan, however, boards should check local building ordinances concerning its legality. “You should check to be sure that there are no violations of city or fire codes concerning locking mechanisms,” notes Wolfe.

Elevator lock-out. More common in loft properties, this approach involves locking the elevator so that only those with keys can gain access. The downside is that people can still be buzzed in, allowing intruders to enter and lurk downstairs.

Intercom only. The most typical approach is to have an intercom in which anyone can be buzzed in. There are variations on this – you can also include a video camera – but the system still relies a great deal on the individual “doorkeeper.”

Dual intercoms. While the entrance at almost every non-doorman building has an intercom panel, many properties now have two: one panel that opens a locked door leading from the street to the vestibule and another between the vestibule and the lobby. Some dual-intercom systems buzz both doors open at once, while others buzz open the street-access door, stop, then buzz open the interior door. Wolfe recommends the latter, so visitors are not left vulnerable while passing through the vestibule.

Coded intercoms. Additional security can be had by using a three-digit code, instead of the occupant’s name, next to each apartment number on the exterior intercom panel. That way, an intruder cannot easily impersonate a delivery person (“I have a package for you, Mrs. Jones”) or resident (“This is Harry Brown, your next-door neighbor. I’m locked out”). A visitor must know either the apartment or the code of the resident he or she is trying to reach.

Non-duplicating keys. A non-duplicating key comes with a coded card, without which copies of the key cannot be made. Managers say many properties use this system because it deters illegal subletting and unauthorized use. Generally, the board or manager issues two keys per unit – a resident who requests additional keys must pay and sign for them. Since residents cannot copy these, they must approach the board or manager, a deterrent if the intent is to illegally sublet or to pass out keys to friends. Board members and managers say this allows them to track who is living in the building, as well.

There can be down sides. The board president of a 44-unit East Side co-op, recalls that when her property switched to non-duplicatable keys a rental tenant requested eight copies. “I went nuts, and I just said no,” she says. The renter took the matter to court, where a judge declared that each unit should receive two free keys and a third for $15.

Part-time lock. In 1995, the East Side co-op’s board installed new locks on both the street and vestibule doors, with a timer that automatically locks the street door from midnight to 6 A.M. A switch in the superintendent’s apartment allows him to control the lock, which uses the same key as the interior door.

The president says the lock, installation, and keys for residents cost a total of about $2,000. “It’s cut down on the homeless sleeping in the lobby,” she says, adding, however: “We have had some problems with people stuffing papers in the doors when they’re expecting guests.”


There is also a variety of electronic measures. In this age of sophisticated surveillance, more and more co-op and condo residents are picking up their videophones or switching on their televisions to see who’s knocking at the door. Managers say video surveillance may run from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the equipment. Among the items:

Stand-alone cameras. Generally, these cameras are connected to a monitor and 24-hour video recorder in the super’s apartment, and possibly also to a video telephone or video intercom in each unit. Usually, the camera is inside the vestibule or lobby and faces the front door. Additional equipment may be installed in the laundry room, basement, and staircases. Some properties have installed encased video cameras outside buildings, to show the action in the surrounding area.

Video system with cable TV. Another option is to have a local cable company hook the camera to the property’s cable television wires, so residents may simply turn to a designated television channel to view the lobby. While some managers praise this, others say it is less convenient than one using stand-alone cameras because it requires that all residents have a television hooked to cable, and they must turn it on to view visitors.

Keypad. Another type of lock is controlled by a keypad and a multi-digit code that residents punch in. Wolfe says that a property may assign a different code to each unit, so that the whole building does not have to learn a new code if someone moves out. The keypad is his favorite system because when you come home with lots of packages. You punch in the code, get inside the vestibule, and can then dig around without feeling vulnerable. For an additional cost, a computer and printer can record keypad use.

Card system. This lock is opened with the swipe of a computer-coded card. Some managers say the card system is more effective than the keypad, since code numbers can get passed around. Others complain that this makes deliveries and other needed access too difficult.


In the end, security is dependent on the individual. Even the most sophisticated and expensive system is useless if residents don’t respect the process. No matter how many intercom panels line the walls, security is violated when residents hold the door open for, or buzz in, strangers. A 24-hour video camera may catch a thief’s image, but an open door makes that image handy only after a burglary has occurred.

“All it takes is one person to let someone in,” says Wolfe. “We are always pounding that message across: make sure the doors close behind you. Don’t just let them in because they have on a suit and tie. The key is to suspect anyone you don’t know.” In short, owners have to have the philosophy that the integrity of the system is only as good as those who use it.

Melanie Conty is the former managing editor of Habitat. Tom Soter is the editorial director of Habitat. This story originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Habitat.

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