Whether dog people or cat people, New Yorkers love their pets - nearly a quarter of the city's inhabitants own companion animals.
According to the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), the government organization responsible for licensing the city's pets, approximately 102,000 people per year register dogs in New York City - and that says nothing of those who don't register, who own cats, or have some other type of pet. Conservative estimates say that there are probably a half-million dogs residing in the Big Apple.
Of course, all those four-legged friends have to live somewhere. A significant number of co-ops and condos in Manhattan permit pets of some kind, and public housing allows animals under the city's Pet Law. That said - there are likely a good number of canines or felines in many of the multi-family buildings in town.
Linda Cohen Wassong, a broker at Douglas Elliman and a devoted dog owner and animal activist herself, specializes in matching clients with pet-friendly buildings. She was initially surprised at the number of co-ops and condos that had "no-pet" policies. So she began digging through her firm's extensive database to find out which co-ops and condos accept pets. Updating the records as she went along, Wassong also gathered information about buildings that welcome other varieties of pets, such as cats and birds.
Soon Wassong was able to refine her search and pinpoint buildings to match her niche clientele. She discovered that there are approximately 42,750 units in pet-friendly buildings on the Upper West Side, and 44,376 units on the Upper East Side. Those buildings, she says, tolerate pets, but are there any that welcome four-legged residents with open arms?
"Buildings don't usually court pet owners," explains Wassong, but some provide amenities catering to the canine population. "You'll have things like a dog run, or something of that nature, but in most older buildings, the answer would be no. In a newer building - one that's trying to be sexy - the answer might be yes. These new buildings downtown might have a "˜dog spa' or something like that."
But according to Wassong, buildings like those are probably in the minority. Boards, for example, have the right to turn down a prospective buyer if he or she admits to having animals during the interview process. "My vet has two dogs, three cats, and a bird," says Wassong, "and he told me he can't even think of moving because there's no building who will take all of them."
It may seem obvious, say the experts, but board members and presidents that don't own pets tend to be the ones who don't want to allow pets in the building. "People who don't have pets don't understand," says Wassong, "and if they don't understand, sometimes they aren't respectful."
Boards can sometimes lay down the law with pets, because with them come problems - lapdogs that yap, birds that screech, and cats that gallop crazily around the hardwood floors at three in the morning. How can boards and managing agents work with residents to accommodate the needs of both the pet-owning and the pet-peeved?
Stephen Elbaz, president of Esquire Management Corp. in Manhattan, says that boards typically ask for the pet's size, weight, species and breed during the interview process, as well as a photograph of the animal.
"At more exclusive buildings," he says, "they actually get letters of references on the pets from obedience schools."
Turning down pet-owning buyers is more common in a seller's market, when the board can be choosier about whom they let into the building. A board may simply decide they don't need the tenant who has pets.
"A building can say "˜pet-friendly,' but in a way, that can be meaningless," says Wassong. "I had one client who had a Burmese Mountain dog - a big, very sweet dog - and I found the perfect apartment for them, and everyone in the building assured me that there would be no problem. But when the managing agent actually looked the dog up on the Web and called a board member to ask again, the board member said that at that point in time, the market was such that they could be picky, and they would just rather not accept a dog of that size - even though the building was "˜pet-friendly.'"
"[Boards] can turn down someone for any reason," says Karen Copeland, an attorney, who represents tenants facing eviction for having animals, "other than a discriminatory reason - although having a pet may constitute a discriminatory reason."
Indeed, the law has a good deal to say regarding New Yorkers' ability to keep companion animals. Section 47 of the New York Civil Rights Law gives that right for medical reasons, saying "No person shall be denied admittance to and/or the equal use of and enjoyment of any public facility solely because said person is a person with a disability and is accompanied by a guide dog, a hearing dog, or a service dog." And courts have held that this extends to housing - public or otherwise - and also applies to a range of disabilities, including clinical depression. "Reasonable accommodation," as provided under the Fair Housing Act could trump a board's no-pets rule, says Copeland.
New York City's Pet Law, which was enacted in 1983, provides that once a pet (as opposed to a wild animal - the DOHMH has a detailed and in some cases controversial list of what is and is not legally considered a "pet") is harbored "openly and notoriously" in a multiple dwelling for three or more months, then any no-pet clause in a lease is considered unenforceable.
In other words, if no one complains about Rufus's barking for three months, Rufus can stay.
Copeland explains that the qualifier of openly and notoriously, "is a legal phrase that volumes have been written about, but it means you can't hide the dog or cat."
Most dogs, of course, need to be walked and are impossible to conceal, but how about a cat or similar housebound animal? "The animal sits in the window, or people see it when they come in to do repairs," Copeland says. "Those Petco signs people stick on their doors listing the number of animals in case of fire - that's a good way to be open and notorious."
In the early 1980s, landlords who wished to toss out an inveterate tenant, renovate their apartment, and then charge more rent, commonly did so by invoking the standard "no-pet" clause in the lease if they discovered their tenants had pets. The Pet Law, like many New York housing laws, was designed and intended to protect tenants from eviction on such a technicality, and co-op owners from having their Tribeca lofts turned into kennels.
Co-ops, of course, have in their ownership structure proprietary leases. And in 1984, courts held that the Pet Law applies to co-op buildings in all five boroughs. The law, however, does not apply to condo owners in Manhattan or the Bronx, but it does apply to condo subleases, as well as condo owners in the other boroughs and suburban counties, according to Copeland.
The Pet Law, as currently constituted, does not protect pet owners from a building that becomes non-pet-friendly while they are living there, nor does it allow owners whose pets die to acquire a new pet. Pending legislation - Intro 189 - on which a hearing was held in late June 2004 before the City Council's Committee of Housing and Buildings - would offer these and other protections.
"The current Pet Law is intended to have blanket coverage for future pets," explains Lisa Weisberg, the senior vice president for government affairs and public policy for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). "The real estate industry has always been opposed to it because they feel they should decide what their pet policy should be."
Wassong testified and argued at the hearing in favor of Intro 189. "It's not about the pet; it's about people," she says. "It's about affection, it's about respect, it's about love - all those things people feel for their pets. It's really a people thing." Wassong, who owns two cocker spaniels, donates a percentage of her commissions to animal charities.
The City Council, which adjourned for the summer, did not take up Intro 189 but may reconsider it in the fall. Unless voted out of committee, the legislation will die.
Boards can take action if a pet is considered a menace or an out-and-out nuisance, says Weisberg. "Everything changes if the animal is creating a nuisance, if a person violates health codes, or if a dog is deemed dangerous."
Nuisance status is generally achieved not by an isolated action (like your dog snarling at the neighboring shareholder in 6D) but by a pattern of repeated bad behavior.
Examples of nuisance behavior, according to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York include "frequent urination or defecation in the hallway or lobby, constant barking, attacking other tenants, or strong, objectionable odor coming from the apartment."
Once a pet is determined to be a nuisance - a process that involves formal legal action - that pet may be removed from the building.
Most New York pets are remarkably well behaved. Dogs are low-budget alarm systems, and cats keep apartments rodent-free. Why, then, would a building not want to allow pets?
"Number one, it's increased maintenance," Elbaz explains. "[It might mean] urine and feces in the lobby or elevator that has to get swept or mopped up - messes that wouldn't be there if there were no animals in the building."
"Noise is another reason," he continues. "Some people are responsible; others leave the apartment at seven o'clock in the morning and come back at nine o'clock at night and leave the dog with just a bowl of water, and so the pet is howling, barking or meowing all day."
Service people may also be reluctant to do repairs in apartments with dogs. "The tenants say, "˜Oh, the dog is friendly,' and meanwhile he's seven feet tall and weights 300 pounds and is barking," Elbaz explains.
To that end, the restrictions on pets have gotten more rigid in many buildings. It is common now for buildings to limit the pets allowed based on the size of the animal (no big dogs), the number of animals (no more than one cat), and even the breed of dog (no pit bulls). Copeland believes that opposition to the pets is more an issue of control than one of disliking animals. "It's more that it's a rule, and [tenants have] violated a rule."
So, advises Wassong, know the rules before trying to purchase an apartment, change apartments, or you are a board member faced with a prospective buyer who comes with wildlife in tow.
"You have to be absolutely sure," says Wassong, "are you going to go into contract without knowing whether your pet will be allowed into the building? Will your pet have to meet the board first?"
It's also a risky proposition, she adds. "Do you have the time to go to contract, only to find out that you've been rejected because of your dog? Plus the expense of that; there are such sad stories of people who've been told they can't find housing [because they own pets], or find something that they love, only to find that they're not pet-friendly."
Wassong though is determined to work through board politics to help her pet-loving clients. She is expanding upon the research she has already done. "I have begun putting together a list of available pet services in each neighborhood, so that I can help my clients find pet stores, vets, dog runs and dog walkers. These kinds of details are important to buyers when deciding how much an apartment is worth to them in terms of location. The feedback I am getting is that this information is beneficial to sellers because most people with pets will pay whatever is necessary for the right home."