By Sabina Mollot
In New York, property owners have always been free to decide whether or not to allow pets in their buildings, with the exception of course that they can’t refuse a resident’s disability animal.
What has changed in recent years is that more and more residents are claiming they need a dog for emotional support and landlords are not allowed to ask anything more of the resident other than what service the animal offers.
Property owners are also generally allowed to make their own rules regarding the animals that live in their pet-friendly buildings, though there are some exceptions to that as well, such as whether or not an owner can charge the resident a fee for having the animal. According to a few real estate attorneys who spoke with Brokers Weekly, in co-ops and condos as well as in free market rentals, owners can charge residents a fee. In rent-regulated housing, they can’t. Additionally, no fee can be charged for a disability dog in any kind of housing.
The aforementioned matters are such a delicate issue that one industry attorney who was interviewed on the subject requested anonymity. But one thing he thought was important to stress was that disability animals do include emotional support animals.
“In that instance the animal is not a pet, but is, instead, a reasonable accommodation for a disability,” he said. Hence, no fee.
Another attorney, Richard Klein of Romer Debbas, who specializes in co-op and condo laws, is a dog owner — and one who willingly pays a monthly fee for the privilege of having one where he lives. “It’s up to you whether you want to pay it or not,” he said.
As for the issue of therapy animals, from what he’s seen, it’s become much easier for people in no-pet buildings to demonstrate a need for one by getting a letter of support from a doctor or a social worker. “You can talk to a psychiatrist in North Dakota and they can write a letter saying, ‘I’ve spoken with the patient and they need a dog,’” he said.
If a landlord suspects the person doesn’t truly need the animal, he or she could technically sue, but Klein said owners won’t typically go there.
“You can try to litigate, but how much money do you want to spend?” he asked.
Bradley Silverbush, a senior litigation member with Rosenberg & Estis, agreed about the situation becoming more commonplace.
“It’s become a huge problem,” said Silverbush, in particular since landlords are not allowed to ask what someone’s disability is. In response, he’s been advising his clients to have some sort of established, written policy in place to avoid any accusations of discrimination.
“And as part of the accommodation policy, landlords are entitled to a request a letter from a healthcare professional, and that has held to be sufficient,” said Silverbush.
He also recommends that his clients have some sort of policy requiring vaccinations.
“Landlords have a right to demand it,” he said.
Landlords also, he noted, have a right to insist on a feces-free environment.
Silverbush represents a co-op on the Lower East Side that has the most extreme policy he’s ever seen when it comes to enforcing dog curbing. Specifically, upon getting a dog or moving in with one, owners are required to supply a stool sample from Fido. That way, if dog piles are found around the property’s green areas, they can be DNA tested and the offending pooch (and owner) identified.
“As a result, it hasn’t become a problem yet,” said Silverbush.
Meanwhile, when it comes to rules and attitudes in buildings with regard to pets, Vickey Barron, a top broker at Compass, has heard it all.
In one case, a doctor client of hers, when being interviewed by the Fifth Avenue co-op board, was asked who’d be staying in the home. He mentioned that every other weekend, his girlfriend from out of town would be staying there with her pooch. Upon hearing this, the board charged him a fee of $150 for another application and insisted on a separate interview in which the dog had to be present.
“He did it because he really wanted the apartment,” said Barron, “but it delayed the whole process and it was a big deal.”
While this was one of the more extreme examples she’s seen, considering the dog didn’t even live at the building, Barron has said it has become more common for co-op boards to want to first meet a buyer’s dog.
Additionally, buildings can require a resident to carry the dog in the lobby or use the service elevator when with the dog. (They can’t require residents to use the service elevator with disability or support animals.) Some buildings also have their own nuisance regulations.
“If your dog barks a lot or growls at people in the lobby, they can evict you if it’s in the lease or the bylaws,” said Barron. “ It’s all about having it in writing.”
She also strongly advises clients not to try to hide their pets in no-pet properties. “Some buyers will say, ‘It’s really small, I’ll sneak it in.’ Well, you can’t. If you get caught, they can evict you, even in a co-op.”
There are of course ways to get around the system, though, due to New York’s 90-day rule stating if a tenant keeps a pet openly, its presence can’t be challenged after that period. As for what’s considered openly, “if it’s seen even once by a doorman within 90 days,” then it’s openly, Barron explained.
She added that before asking clients any other question, she always asks if they have a pet.
“It’s a waste of my time if I’m sending them to buildings that won’t allow pets or the client has a 70-pound dog and the limitation is 40 pounds,” she said.
That said, Barron suspects landlords are becoming more accepting of pets because more and more of her clients seem to have them.