Pets or Pests? Dealing With Companion Animals

Whether they consider themselves dog people, cat people or exotic bird people, many New York City residents own companion animals. New Yorkers may love their furry or fine-feathered friends but not all association boards and managers are quite as enthused about pets.

That's because with pets, can come problems—especially for those living in tight multifamily spaces. It can be difficult for condo boards and management to balance residents’ rights to keep companion animals against the impact those animals may have on value, maintenance and community relations. And it's not just a matter of personal preference; there are laws in place protecting the rights of residents, and coupled with the rules and regulations that boards and buildings may have created to protect themselves, determining which takes precedence can sometimes be a little tricky.

Know the Rules

It’s crucial for pet owners—or people who plan to become pet owners in the future—to understand the relevant laws for both their municipality and their building so that they aren’t taken by surprise and possibly forced to give up a pet.

“One of the most heart-breaking situations we face at the ASPCA is when tenants are forced to relinquish their pets due to no-pet provisions in their buildings,” says Michelle Villagomez, New York City legislative director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “These individuals must make the terrible choice of either relinquishing the animal to an already overburdened animal shelter system, or risk losing their housing. In addition, the ASPCA’s adoptions department must deny untold numbers of potential adopters of an animal due to ‘no pet’ provisions in their leases.”

The biggest law protecting New York City residents who have pets is what's commonly known as the New York City Pet Law. “The Pet Law applies to renters in multiple dwellings—buildings with three or more apartments. It can be interpreted to apply to cooperatives as well—as long as they have more than three residential units—because they have proprietary leases,” Villagomez says.

The Pet Law, which was enacted in 1983, states that a landlord is deemed to have waived the right to enforce a no-pet clause if a tenant has kept a kept a pet 'openly and notoriously'—meaning that the resident has not actively hidden or concealed the pet, and that the landlord or his agent has known, or should have known, about the pet for three months or more without taking action to enforce the no-pet rule, Villagomez says.

New York City’s Pet Law doesn’t extend to the rest of the state, says Eric Feinberg, a solo practitioner specializing in pet law in the law offices of Eric Feinberg, P.C. in New York City. And even within the boroughs, the law can vary in its applicability.

“An appellate court covering Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island has held that the Pet Law applies to condominiums, while the appellate divisions covering the Bronx and Manhattan ruled that the Pet Law does not apply to condominiums,” Villagomez says.

If someone rents or sublets from a condo owner and has a lease, that's another situation as well, she says.

But overall, the 90-day rule is the standard.“If you’re a tenant, and you’ve had a pet for more than 90 days, and the landlord has known about it or should have known about it and done nothing, you can keep your pet - even though you might have had a contractual provision saying you can’t have a pet,” Feinberg says. “On the 91st day, they can’t start a proceeding against you. They’re out of luck.”

Complicating Factors

However, pet laws in New York aren’t usually so simple. When you mix companion animals, disabilities and buildings that don’t allow companion animals, it all get very complicated very quickly.

There are thousands of co-ops and condos throughout the city that don't allow pets and each has its own reasons for not allowing them, depending on who formed the co-op and who was living in it at the time, Feinberg says. The reasons could range from desiring a quieter building (the initial founder/sponsors may have been worried about dogs barking at all hours) or perhaps someone in the building was deathly allergic to cats. The building could have lot of young children, with protective parents worried about the animals and their interaction with the children, or they could have been concerned about the cleanup after the animals.

“The main reason that pets are an issue in a condo/co-op environment is that the nature of the development—units are close together, and noise issues are more likely to arise,” says Andrew Fortin, senior vice president of communications with Associa, a management firm with offices nationwide, including two in New York. “If I had to venture a guess, I would say that all out animal bans are more likely to be found in older developments, and newer developments probably have greater flexibility when it comes to animals.”

Many times, people living with a disability of some sort need pets for medical purposes but this could be used both as a reason to evict them or not to allow them to live in the building, Feinberg says. “If they are disabled and they have an animal, and it was discovered that a co-op board didn’t allow the person in—the disabled person could file a lawsuit over that,” he says. “But you can’t always find out why you weren’t allowed into a co-op. You have to prove that having a pet was why you weren’t allowed in, and that’s not always easy.”

Feinberg is also working on the creation of a new pet law for senior citizens and buildings. Currently, seniors aren’t entitled to a pet, but he wants to get this changed.

“They might be single and lonely, and a pet is a good thing for someone's health—but that’s a law that has yet to be passed,” he says.

Making—and Enforcing—Rules

A co-op or condominium association can enact restrictions on whether pets are allowed in the building or in the units, and this is typically done via the bylaws or in the covenants, conditions and restrictions provisions (CC&R) of the association, which are drafted and recorded when the building is being built, Fortin says. “The most typical restriction we see in our condominium buildings is limits on size and number of pets,” he says. “The reason for such rules are typically due to the close living arrangements in condominiums, and the need to ensure that all unit owners can have quiet enjoyment of their property.”

When it comes to enforcing the established pet rules in condos and co-ops, typically there’s a warning letter for an initial violation followed by fines and other escalating actions, Fortin says. The type of enforcement also varies by type of building. In a co-op, an owner can be sued in landlord-tenant court, but an owner can’t be sued in that court if he lives in a condo, Feinberg says. A co-op or condo can order that a pet can be removed via the court system but that's a very expensive undertaking, so usually the building administrators will try other tactics, such as warnings and fines first, he says.

Even residents who are allowed to have pets must make sure that their animals are quiet and are following other rules, like always being on-leash in common areas, not making a mess, and not being a menace to building staff or residents. “Keep in mind that while a unit owner may have the right under the condo rules to own a pet, that they also have the responsibility to ensure that their pet does not interfere with the rights of neighbors to enjoy their units free of distractions,” Feinberg says. “We find that in nearly all cases, most unit owners with pets are very responsible and work to respect their neighbors.”

Still, there are times when those with pets and those living in the building are at odds, and the board, managers and pet owners need to work together to achieve the common goal—one where everyone can live in harmony. For example, Fortin says one of his firm's management teams had a case where two unit owners were at odds over a barking dog. The barking wasn’t constant and would only occur when someone walked by the unit or when the building concierge would place deliveries in the unit’s service area.

“The situation devolved into shouting matches and phone calls to authorities,” Fortin says. “Was either party at fault? Not really. But we worked with the pet owners to get them to agree to put their dog in day care during working hours, which served to de-escalate the situation. Condo boards should think outside the box and use their powers to empower pet owners and others alike to promote harmonious living.”

Fortin suggests doing things like inviting a local pet store owner to host an animal safety or obedience training program at your complex. Another idea would be to provide tips and ideas to unit owners to deal with unwanted noise which the close living arrangements of condos is an ever-present issue. “Most importantly, make sure your building has a culture where neighbors know each other,” he says. “When folks are strangers, it is easier to lob criticism or not to put thought on how your actions impact others.”    

Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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