The Virtual Doorman system has arrived in Long Island City, and the tenants of 41-18 24th Street in Long Island City, Queens, have a problem with virtual intelligence as the only measure of security in the building.
Long Island City, Queens, runs parallel to Manhattan positioned on the edge of the East River. Luxury apartments clutter the shore-line, and in the past five years, it has become one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Queens. To rent an apartment here, expect to pay a premium price due to the spectacular views, convenient location, and many options for mass transit. It is home to many working-class families and several prominent people. Some live luxuriously in the tall glass buildings cluttered under the Queens skyline while others, less endowed, occupy the urban dwellings made of brick. This part of Queens is always an eclectic experience. Most of the buildings, even the less affluent, incorporate a doorman, not for convenience or as an amenity, but for safety, the neighborhood can be unsafe at sundown. The building owners of 41-18 24th Street in Long Island City, Queens, have replaced the night doormen with a system known as “The Virtual Doorman,” an eye in the sky. The tenants of the building protest the changes, stating the presence of a physical doorman is necessary for safety. Virtual reality is now reality for the tenants, and they are organized to fight for their safety.
In New York City the use of artificial and virtual intelligence would inevitably create privacy challenges. I loved the convenience of Alexa, but in April, when I learned Amazon was listening to conversations, I shut her down in a flash. The cloud has made the office in my home almost paper-free, but I have experienced numerous security issues with Microsoft. So is it sensible the natural progression is to incorporate more artificial/virtual intelligence? Where and when do we draw the line? What will be the repercussions when virtual replaces reality and the presence of humans? Long Island City residents continue to experience an increase in the number of buildings switching to the virtual doorman system. While the eye in the sky is necessary, it cannot replace the safety tenants feel upon entering their building, and being greeted by a doorman. Especially when safety is a concern a doorman can make all the difference. Landlords are utilizing virtual systems as an antidote to offset inflated payroll expenditures. “Virtual doorman will not replace a physical doorman at the front desk. The savings will not out measure the cost if a tenant is injured. Every landlord wants to save money on payroll, but it should not jeopardize the security of the tenants.” Gus G., a recently terminated night doorman, replaced by the virtual system, explains.
Currently, there are more than 160 residential buildings throughout Long Island City, with an average rent of $3,500.00 monthly. Rental rates remain robust post the defection of Amazon, keeping profit margins in Long Island City higher than the skyline apartments. So why the need to eliminate jobs or sacrifice safety? Most landlords are experiencing record profits, especially when they accommodate the affordable housing crisis. If a landlord incorporates affordable housing units in the building, additional tax breaks and subsidies are granted by the state and city. The landlords of this city are solely responsible for the deceptive acts of jeopardizing the security of their tenants to squeeze more profit from the buildings they own. Replacing the doorman at the front desk with a virtual eye is just another tactic to reduce the payroll costs to increase profits. “Tenants are up in arms over this. The virtual doorman should be used as an additional measure or combined with other means of security.” Rich Fogal, Tenants Board President of HUIS 24, Long Island City
A mismanaged building of sorts, the unjustified termination of beloved doorman Gus G. raised a “red flag” to the tenants living at 41-18 24th Street. The Tenant’s Association and Union SEIU 32BJ learn the night doorman at the front desk of the building will be replaced with a “virtual doorman.” Immediately the HUIS 24 Tenant’s Association and Union representatives meet to craft a plan of action against the landlord and management company. A meeting was set for May 11, 2019, for the tenants to express their concerns, most feel slighted the decision to incorporate the system is moving forward without their input. The meeting unfolds on Saturday, May 11, in the “common room” of the building.
Campaigns of social media were discussed as a means of retaliation against the building. Stories from tenants locked out of the building for hours: the lack of hot water/ heat during the winter months, the safety of the residents, and tenant’s complaints, which are met with little to no action by the management company are only a few of the claims. “Replacing the doorman with a virtual eye can pose many risks” states, Gus G. Additional problems include outsourcing tasks such as cleaning and maintaining the building. “The constant flow of strangers “in and out” of the building daily creates additional safety issues. There are several grievances with the building management. The installation of the virtual doorman should include the presence of a physical person at the front desk, especially at night!” anonymous tenant
The tenants are frustrated and remain united. “An organized campaign against the building and the management is the only alternative.” states an angry tenant. HUIS 24 wrapped up the meeting with a tentative plan of action in place. I followed up with an informal interview with recently terminated doorman, Gus G. He informs me that his co-workers assumed he was fired because of his involvement with Union SEUI 32BJ. There is a pending possibility the Union will represent the workers in a wage and benefits dispute against the building. Still, not all the workers are on the same page regarding the Union SEIU 32BJ. “It was made clear by the building management, on several occasions, any staff caught interacting with the Union reps will be eliminated on the spot. Two months earlier, the superintendent of the building was removed from his position, also accused of supporting the Union SEUI 32 BJ.” Gus G. shares his thoughts regarding the scare tactics used by building management to discourage the workers from engaging with the Union representatives.
Gus G. shares his experience at the building, he explains, “I came to Queens from Colombia, South America, with my family in 1972. I have worked in Long Island City for years and have seen the changes. Money rules in this town and the more powerful the landlords and land developers become, providing safe and affordable housing takes a back seat to profits. Landlords do not discriminate when it comes to a slum lord mentality. Many believe landlords reserve those practices for poor tenants exclusively, but they incorporate the same tactics equally across the board for all tenants. They have no regard for anyone but their own vested interests. The tenants at 41-18 24th street are living with issues they shouldn’t. These tenants will organize, and the nonsense will hopefully cease. But what do I do? I am out of a job with no other means to support myself. No one, not the tenants or the employees are thrilled with the virtual doorman system set to take effect immediately. The situation isn’t fair to anyone.” Gus G.
“Action is necessary when landlords can conceal unfair tactics to discourage employees from engaging with the unions. They can’t replace jobs with virtual reality or technology alone. The tenants are amazing here and pay a premium rent, not for amenities but for a minimal standard of living and safety. This part of the neighborhood attracts a lot of derelict types due to the single adult homeless shelters in the area. The block can be dangerous, especially at night. How will the virtual doorman help a tenant in trouble? Who is watching the camera?” Gus G.
“The virtual doorman compromises our safety and is unfair to the tenants of the building. We pay premium rent; we are receiving sub-standard service. It is not fair!” Anonymous Tenant –HUIS 24.
“There are many instances we do not have hot water or heat. The elevator is in constant disrepair, and the superintendent is horrendous. The latest fiasco, the installation of the virtual doorman, the “eye in the sky” to replace the buildings night doorman compromises our safety. Who will be there to act if my security is compromised in front of the building because I am locked out, and there is no physical doorman to let me in the building?” Tenants of HUIS 24–collectively.
The tenants of 41-18 24th street in Long Island City highlight a sobering reality, landlords can and will use any tactic necessary to preserve their bottom line. But the question still circles back to “artificial intelligence.” When is it enough, and when will we learn virtual reality creates a false security for everyone. Self-driving cars, Alexa, and the virtual doorman a are keeping a close eye on us, but who will be there to intervene when something physically happens, do we call the virtual police? What’s next? People need to regulate technology, not the other way around.
The management company and the landlord’s representative for the building declined to comment, but I am positive there will be a follow up to this story!
The HUIS Tenants Association of 41-18 24th Street of Long Island City, Queens take a stand against the impending changes in the building.