Tenant Privacy Rights

Throughout the city, landlords are asking tenants for unlimited ac- cess to their apartments and requir- ing them to give their Social Security numbers. Even though a landlord owns their building, tenants still have pri- vacy rights and can say no to both these demands.

Normally, a landlord, or any real- estate agent, may only enter an apart- ment with the tenant’s permission after giving them 24 to 48 hours no- tice. They can only request entry for repairs or to show the apartment to prospective renters. No one, with or without permission, may request entry to “look around,” or for other frivolous reasons. Without such permission, entering violates the tenant’s privacy rights, according to the National As- sociation of Landlords, and the tenant may have grounds to sue the landlord for it. The only exception is that a land- lord may enter an apartment without notice if there is an emergency such as a fire, flood, or gas leak.

Landlords have aggressively request- ed Social Security numbers from ten- ants for reasons that include credit checks on prospective tenants, to pay interest on the tenant’s security deposit, or as part of lease-renewal applications. The most common rea- son, says Harvey Epstein of the Urban Justice Center, is for security-deposit interest. If the tenant refuses to give this information, she or he may not receive interest on their security de- posit—although interest rates are now so low that most tenants have little interest in receiving less than one cent on the dollar.

Landlords also request Social Se- curity numbers to do credit checks, and if prospective tenants refuse to give this information, they may not get the apartment. But if the tenant already is renting the apartment, says Epstein, they don’t have to give that information, and they should not be intimidated into giving it to anyone. If in doubt, it is best to seek advice from a tenant advocate or lawyer.

While Social Security numbers are commonly used for identification, le- gally, they’re not supposed to be. The New York City Administrative Code, in section 27-2075(c), states that land- lords have no authorization to demand a tenant’s Social Security numbers, birth date, or other confidential information.

Several court cases have affirmed this. In 2005, Manhattan State Su- preme Court Judge Diane A. Lebedeff cited the city administrative code in Ariana Meyerson v. Prime Realty Ser- vices, ruling that a tenant did not have to provide her Social Security number because it was “prima facie privileged information.” She also said that land- lords cannot evict tenants for refusing to provide their number or imply that failing to provide it is grounds for evic- tion or not renewing a lease.

In 1993, the federal 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, in Greidinger v. Da- vis, that an “individual’s concern over his/her Social Security number confi- dentiality is compelling” for reasons including their “welfare or Social Se- curity benefits, paychecks, identity theft.”

New York State courts have ruled that tax law prohibits the use of tax-return information for nontax purposes such as a high-income-decontrol proceed- ing, and only the tenant’s name and address can be given to verify their identity. In proceedings where the landlord is alleging that the apart- ment is not the tenant’s primary resi- dence, the tenant may redact their Social Security number from docu- ments produced in the proceedings, a Housing Court judge ruled in 2003 in Cambridge Development, L.L.C. v. McCarthy.

The Meyerson ruling also states “there is a broad federal policy against the government revealing individual Social Security numbers. There are a variety of federal statutory restrictions on dissemination of such information such as the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994.