Time was, if you said that a co-op or condo building was 'going to the dogs,' it was a bad thing. These days however, that's not always the case. According to the American Pet Products Association, 39 percent of all U.S. households own at least one dog, and 33 percent own at least one cat. This is why many co-ops and condos in New York have started to change their rules regarding pets and it’s a much more welcoming atmosphere for animals.
For example, consider Glen Oaks Village in Queens. Glen Oaks is the largest garden apartment co-op in the city, with 3,000 families and 10,000 residents; it’s also pet friendly.
“Being pet friendly and setting and enforcing reasonable pet-related house rules creates the greatest opportunity for both sides to get along,” says Bob Friedrich, president of Glen Oaks Village. “Last year we opened the Glen Oaks Village Enchanted Forest Dog Park which provides a beautiful setting for people to allow their dog to run without a leash. The park also has benches and tables to accommodate non-pet owning residents who want to watch the dogs run free.”
But not everyone is for the pets. Non pet-lovers cite noise, aggression and mess as reasons for not wanting to share their building with their neighbors' animals, and they feel that a duly elected board should have the right to limit pet ownership. In many high-rise communities, people share corridors and lobbies, and have limited access to floors via the elevator, which brings still other issues into play. People may have animal allergies—or even phobias—and forcing them to share an elevator with people and their pets can be a problem waiting to happen.
So how to promote peace among the four-legged and the two-legged inhabitants of your building or association? The experts say it takes a combination of courtesy, responsibility, accommodation, and respect; not just on the part of pet owners, but of everyone who calls your community home.
So to minimize unpleasant interactions and bad feelings, Darryl M. Vernon, an attorney with Vernon & Ginsburg, LLP who represents the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, believes pet rules should be based around common courtesy.
You need to talk with dog owners and non-owners and see what people care about and write up reasonable rules that all parties can live with,” Vernon says. “Create rules about walking the dogs, taking them in and out, and making sure they aren’t doing anything to harm the common areas.”
Pets and the Law
An issue that throws a wrench into the implementation of some pet rules concerns shareholders or owners who need companion animals for medical reasons. While no one would argue the right of a blind person to have a seeing-eye dog, or one trained to recognize the signs of seizure or stroke and alert medical personnel, other claims can seem questionable. Distinguishing a medically-necessary companion animal from an ordinary pet can get very dicey—the definition of a 'companion animal' is so broad and far reaching, it can easily be abused.
Is a cockatoo or a potbellied pig really what the doctor ordered to fight depression or anxiety? Are each and every one of a resident's eight cats a 'medical necessity'? With the issue of therapy animals a common media topic and official-looking companion animal 'certification' documents easily downloadable from the web, it seems anyone can invent a plausible reason for why they absolutely must be allowed to keep an animal in their home.
“Some landlords and co-ops think they are just better off never allowing companion animals,” says Robert Marino, a real estate advisor, who served on his condo board for 11 years. “But there are a lot of benefits [to a building] in allowing them, because these days, more and more people want to have them. More and more people have them for reasons of disability - and when that happens, they have to be allowed anyway. Really, I think boards should just spare themselves the bother and allow people to keep pets for whatever reason.”
That's music to the ears of pet lovers, but for those who prefer for whatever reason to have only two-legged neighbors, it strikes an unhappy chord. “At the end of the day, I believe a duly-elected co-op board of directors should be permitted to make the decision on pet ownership in its co-op,” Friedrich says. “If the shareholders feel the board is acting arbitrarily and capricious in its decision-making capacity, it can vote them out and elect a new board. That is how democracy works, and a co-op in action is democracy at its most basic level.”
Pets and the Law
The Administrative Code of New York City § 27-2009, commonly referred to as the 'Pet Law,' describes the rights of residents—renters, co-op shareholders, and condo owners alike—to keep their pets under certain circumstances, despite any lease provisions to the contrary. In its plainest reading, the Pet Law provides that once a pet lives in a multiple dwelling (defined as a building with three or more residential units) 'openly and notoriously' (in other words, not deliberately hidden from the building’s owners, their agents and on-site employees) for three or more months, then any no-pet clause in a lease is considered waived and unenforceable.
Friedrich believes that when people move into a co-op, they are well aware of its pet rules—and that the co-op's board should clearly be allowed unfettered rule-making authority.
“Although Glen Oaks Village is pet friendly, we believe the current pet law is an infringement on a co-op's right to set its own house rules on such a contentious issue,” Friedrich says. “Currently, if a co-op does not permit pets, it must closely monitor each household for breach of this rule and immediately bring an action against the offending shareholder. If the co-op fails to do so within a short period of time, it may be forced to allow the pet in the co-op.”
The current Pet Law may eventually have an addendum; a new law that many pro-pet groups are trying to get passed that would allow a resident with a legally-owned dog or cat to replace that animal if and when the animal dies—even if the original animal was allowed to remain in an otherwise no-pets building because of the 3-month Pet Law loophole. This proposal has been making the rounds for years, and may come up for a vote in 2013.
Another very contentious issue is that of banning certain dog breeds in buildings, or capping the size of dogs allowed. While privately-owned buildings have had varying success with this type of rule, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has already put similar rules in place for all the buildings it oversees. According to Marino, “One of the worst things that happened was NYCHA issuing a dog ban for dogs of a certain size, which effectively wiped out pit bulls and others. A lot of people are also banning dogs by breed and weight, which is ridiculous.”
As in most things, co-op boards have more direct authority over residents' pet ownership than do condo boards. “Unless it is in the offering plan and specifically says it would take a two-thirds majority resident vote to do it, co-ops can prohibit pets or outlaw any animals they want,” Marino says. “The courts have ruled consistently that they have the right to do it.”
When it comes to condos, it is more difficult to impose these types of rules simply because the condo unit owner owns the apartment free and clear, rather than simply owning shares of stock that allow the shareholder the right to buy, sell and live in the unit. If a condo allowed pets in the past and have changed their rules with the requisite majority vote, courts are likely to grandfather in the community's pet-owning residents.
And it's up to buildings themselves to police their own rules, according to Vernon. Pet rules in buildings are rarely enforced at the city level, so it remains the responsibility of the co-op to enforce its own rules.
A Peaceable Kingdom
Even if a building's pets are an extremely well-behaved bunch, all it takes is one incident—an unpleasant experience in an elevator, a yapping puppy, an epic mess on the lobby rug—to set off tensions between dog owners and non-dog owners. Elevators in particular are a big issue, and one that Vernon sees pop up in pet-related spats all the time.
“If anyone is on an elevator and they have a fear of dogs, we often say as a courtesy, just don’t get on the elevator—wait,” he says. “Some people may use the side doors with their pets, and of course they always need to be on a leash.”
According to Friedrich, “Although most non-dog owning people who live in the community are OK with it being pet friendly, the two biggest issues have always been the failure of a small minority of irresponsible pet owners to pick up or leash their dogs. As a result, you try to create a set of fair and reasonable house rules that deal with the issues of pets and then enforce them.”
When people take advantage of the situation however, it might be time to take drastic measures. “We aggressively enforce these rules and bring court action in egregious situations,” Friedrich says. “We have been successful in most of our court actions that have denied irresponsible pet owners from harboring a pet on co-op property. The downside is that court action can be expensive, so it is always better to try and resolve these issues outside of the court system.”
Marino, who also serves as president of the New York Council of Dog Owners groups, often gets requests from co-ops and condos for recommendations on creating rules that will keep pet owners and non-pet owners living in harmony.
“First of all, they should never ban breeds,” he says. “It’s actually been shown that smaller dogs have more bite incidents than larger dogs, so breed and weight restrictions don’t make sense. You need to make sensible building rules, such as no dogs off leashes in common areas, and if your dog has an accident, obviously you need to clean it up.”
For buildings welcoming pets, it’s important to have a pet addenda in the house rules spelling out the expectations for the pet owner.
“What I recommend to buildings is to make everyone register their pets with the management office,” Marino says. “Plus, show proof of licensing and vaccinations.” Insurance can also cover the resident if their pet gets into some sort of altercation or trouble, and can protect the building as well. Just check with your insurance broker.
For those wondering if a board can turn down a prospective buyer if he or she admits to having animals and the rules don’t allow them—the answer is clear: A board should be able to turn down a prospective buyer when there is a compatibility issue between the co-ops house rules regarding pets and the prospective buyer who may have one.
“Contrary to popular beliefs, a dog walking on a carpet will cause no more damage than a person walking on it,” say Marino. “And baby carriages or people with bikes cause more damage. A wet dog may shake but people are wet in elevators, too. If everyone just is calm, cool and collected about pets, everyone can get along.”
Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.