New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

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Pets, Policies & Problems

Your board is about to enact a pet policy. May dog have mercy on your soul. Few things are more contentious for a board than balancing the needs of pet owners and their non-pet neighbors. On the one side, animal lovers speak of their dogs – and that is universally the issue (cats, fish, and usually birds are essentially given a pass) – with almost religious fervor, mentioning unconditional love, emotional support, and lifelong bonds. The other side is usually filled with words like “property values,” “bite,” “dog crap,” and “the constant smell of urine.”

Given that divide between the holy and the hygienic, how does a board come up with a pet policy that satisfies both sides? It may not be as difficult as you think, despite the high emotions often involved. Now, enforcement – well, that’s a whole other bag of kibble.

The keys, in either case, are to know the established laws, to communicate regularly with the staff, and to focus on behavior, not prejudice. Realize, too, that this particular issue applies differently to small buildings. If you’re putting in a laundry room or negotiating a lobby redesign, the basic steps are the same whether you have 10 apartments or 200. Not so with setting pet policies – because whether it’s 10 apartments or 200, there’s usually still only one lobby that the dogs have to go through.

 

Stuck in the Middle with Poo

Pet owners themselves are torn over how to deal with all this. One cat-owning Manhattanite who sublets her co-op, speaking anonymously since her building allows pets, says, “I have a no-dog policy that I’m deeply ambivalent about, because I love animals and, in fact, I’d [successfully] begged to have the ‘no-pet’ rider taken out of my rental lease when I first moved in,” before the building went co-op. “But I also want to protect my investment. I’ve seen in other people’s apartments the damaged floors, the clawed walls, and the unhappy neighbors who complain because the dog next door barks all day when it’s left alone.”

That doesn’t happen in every dog-lover’s apartment, of course. Even so, she says, pet policy “is one of those terrible issues where nobody can be painted the bad guy, because there are perfectly reasonable concerns on both sides of the argument. And the board gets stuck in the middle.”

Or worse: in the headline-making case of the Ruppert Yorkville Towers Condominium complex in the East 90s, the board was actively vilified when it established an overreaching no-new-pets policy, and implemented it in a callous manner that treated pets no differently than washing machines or parking spaces – in the process becoming a case study of how not to put a policy in place.

“People are put in a position to choose between an animal and a home, and the animal is a family member,” says dog owner Maddy Tarnofsky, an attorney specializing in pet issues. “The bottom line is that some landlords and boards don’t get it – they don’t understand the bond.”

And yet, just as some apartment complexes forbid smoking or are retirement communities that don’t allow young children, co-ops and condos have every right to offer the choice of being pet-friendly or pet-less. Neither choice is better or more moral than the other – it’s just a choice. What matters most, either way, is creating a policy that balances the needs of all your shareholders or owners – and then properly implementing that choice.

 

Doggie Dos and Don’ts

There are an estimated one million dogs in the city, according to the New York Times. Or maybe two million, according to animal advocates. Or, yet again, per the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, there are 500,000 – with only about one in five of them licensed. Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of doggies in the window – and about 400,000 irresponsible owners.

Some co-ops and condos seem to operate just fine without a pet policy. Others manage the issue with a simple, signed agreement specifying how an owner will be responsible for his or her pet. And others, particularly in large buildings or complexes, may still find themselves better off with a more formal policy in place.

Alan Saly is board secretary for the 17-apartment co-op at 570 44th Street in Brooklyn. “All the board members [here] know the people who want dogs and why they want dogs,” he says. “The super has three young children and they wanted a puppy – the board figured it was a reasonable thing. It’s easier to deal with when you know the people personally and not in the abstract.”

At the 168-unit co-op at 173-175 Riverside Drive, there’s a formal arrangement, albeit bare bones (so to speak). “We ask on the admissions application whether someone has pets and what the pets are like, and let people understand they have to be respectful of their neighbors,” says the board president, Michael Connelly. “We do not have any regulations specific to pets.” He’s proud that his shareholders are such that bad doggies haven’t yet been an issue. Even so, he concedes, “all you need is a couple of dogs [defecating] in the lobby, and you’ve got a problem.”

And the more apartments, the bigger the potential problem. Howard Schechter, a partner at Schechter & Brucker and the attorney for the Ruppert Yorkville condo board, says of the 1,257-unit two-building complex that, “with that many people in a limited amount of space, the dogs were creating a problem because the quantity of dog waste was substantial. It smelled in the summertime, and the staff had to go wash the [block-long] sidewalks twice a day. It’s a commitment of time and resources.”

“That’s a problem,” agrees Tarnofsky, the lawyer. “Pet owners have to realize they have a responsibility to their neighbors to act in responsible ways. That’s very simple. Like they say, one bad apple can spoil the barrel. And then the boards will overreact and say, ‘That’s it – no more dogs.’”

Rather than react, it’s usually smarter for a board to take the initiative. The fairest thing for everyone is to have a humane and consistent pet policy in place, which helps you avoid accusations of favoritism or inconsistency, or even lawsuits. But how do you create such a policy?

 

Law-di-dog

Let’s get your legal limitations out of the way first. The big one as far as local laws go is Section 27-2009.1 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York. You might have heard it called “The Pet Law” or “The Three-Month Rule.” This statute applies to rental tenants, to co-op shareholders, and – in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island only, because of a different ruling in the Bronx-Manhattan judicial region – condo owners.

It states that if a condo’s bylaws or a lease has a no-pet policy, then the landlord or the board has just 90 days to file an objection to anyone housing a pet “openly and notoriously” – the latter term being legalese for, basically, “taking your dog out and walking it.” A pet owner isn’t required to take the pet outside the apartment, but the owners also can’t hide the pet when, say, a building worker comes to fix the toilet.

The tricky part – and the one that involves active communication with staff – is that even if a landlord, board member, or managing agent doesn’t personally see the pet, the 90-day clock starts ticking when any “agent” of the owner sees the animal. And not just doormen and supers – the 2001 case of Seward vs. Cohen specified that this even includes independent contractors that a building may hire for just one day, say, to lay new carpets. And after those 90 days are up, the pet is legally entitled to stay.

The other major legal point is the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Obviously, you have to allow guide dogs for the blind or the deaf – but you might not know the same allowance is required for psychiatric service dogs. These are animals that assist people with mental disabilities such as a major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress, autism, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia, by performing such tasks as interrupting repetitive or dangerous behaviors, providing a brace when the sufferer appears dizzy, or even barking to alert neighbors if the sufferer passes out. Likewise, epileptics can get a seizure-response dog, and the physically disabled have mobility-assistance dogs that do things such as pulling wheelchairs, operating light switches, and serving as a “living cane” for sufferers of Parkinson’s disease.

“I had a case involving a condo in Long Beach where they did allow animals up to, I think, 20 pounds, but no mixed breeds,” says attorney and pet advocate Karen Copeland. “My client had a 55-pound pit bull mix. But she successfully pleaded a mental disability and was allowed to keep the dog.”

Naturally, the courts have seen cases where pet owners will claim mental or emotional disability simply because someone’s having a hard time, and a dog makes them feel better. That could apply to anybody – and it trivializes genuine mental disorders. In cases like Contello Towers Corporation vs. New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development – in which a family in a pet-prohibited building got its daughter a dog to help her deal with the stress of a move, and tried to claim the girl had an emotional disability – the courts have noted this distinction and enforced the no-pet rule.

 

Katz and Dogs

What happens if an allowed animal dies, or perhaps goes to live elsewhere after its owners have divorced? Can the now pet-less owner get a replacement? That’s currently outside the realm of the law, and a decision left up to each board. Two competing bills are floating around the New York City Council that address this issue. The earlier replacement-pet bill, initially named Intro. 189 and now called Intro. 284, was introduced by Councilwoman Melinda Katz in 2005. The other, Intro. 13, came from Councilman Tony Avella the following year. Along with other provisions, each bill states that a person is allowed to have a replacement pet.

But, says Avella, “when Melinda introduced her bill, there was opposition from the real estate industry, as well as co-op and condo owners. I met with the opposition, in effect, to work out a compromise. I got some agreement, and Councilwoman Katz and I talked about it – I said these compromises would help move the legislation along. But she refused [to amend her legislation], so I did my own bill.”

Katz’s bill starts the 90-day clock ticking when a pet is seen by “anybody representing the owners – even someone making a one-time delivery,” says Avella. “My bill refined it so that it has to be someone routinely in the building.” Additionally, he says, “Co-op and condo owners feel that, since they’re self-governing bodies, if they want to be a pet- or a no-pet building, it’s up to them.”

Thus, Avella’s bill applies only to renters, including rent-stabilized ones in co-ops and condos, “but co-ops and condos themselves are exempt.” (Katz did not respond to repeated phone calls and e-mails to her legislative and district offices.)

Finally, regarding dogs out in public, the law states that owners have to clean up after their animals (Public Health Law 1310) and have them on a leash no more than six-feet long (Section 161.05 of the New York City Health Code), except in such authorized areas as dog runs.

Paper Training

Sometime next year, the 10,000-resident 134-building Glen Oaks Village co-op in Queens plans to have its first comprehensive pet policy in place. Three typical issues created the need.

The biggest, as it is at Ruppert Yorkville, is dog waste. “More and more, people are claiming that residents are not picking up after their dogs, and that there’s urine in the grass,” says resident manager Mildred Marshburn, who notes the complex already has “a $100 initial fine for not curbing your dog.” (For those not raised in 1960s and 1970s New York, when the term became popular, it means that dogs have to do their business in the street – not in the grass, tree beds, sidewalks, or anywhere else. Owners also are required to scoop up afterward.)

If it keeps happening, says Marshburn, “after three or four times, we would send the owner a letter from an attorney saying we’d seek to remove the dog.”

That has never come up, although, it touches on the second issue: violent behavior. A pit bull was ordered removed after it “got a little rough with one of the kids,” she says, and left a bite indentation.

The third issue involves sheer numbers, and the attendant increased smell and noise. “There’s one apartment that has four adult dogs, plus four puppies, two cats, and two birds,” Marshburn says in a genial, “hey-whaddya-gonna-do?” tone of voice. Because of all these and related issues, he adds: “We’re now looking to implement a written policy. We’re thinking about putting something in about the size or number of your pets and about pet registration.”

Those items are among the usual things you’ll find in a pet policy, although the size issue is controversial – a five-pound Chihuahua might bark incessantly, while a sixty-pound Great Dane might be as quiet as a five-ounce mouse. The argument for limiting size is that very big dogs can often be intimidating or even frightening to some people, particularly in the closed confines of elevators or small lobbies.

Here are some points to consider when drafting a policy that does allow pets:

• Some absolutes. You need to require proof of city licensing and of up-to-date vaccines. Make sure that the dog has a collar with the name and phone and apartment numbers of the owner.

• Some strong recommendations. It would be wise to get a signed and notarized document stating that the owner understands and agrees to the co-op/condo pet rules. It should outline the proscribed steps if a dispute occurs, such as the use of a mediator or a board vote. Also, having the pet’s photo on file is a good idea.

• Questions to ask and points to consider. Do you limit the number of pets? Do you only limit the number of dogs? Some animals do better in pairs, and an apartment with two dogs is probably preferable to an apartment with a dozen cats.

Do you limit the size? If so, by weight or by height? The New York City Housing Authority, for example, limits pets to 40 pounds when fully grown. Some dog owners worry about their animal getting chubby and exceeding the limit. But your policy can let a dog who made it under the limit be grandfathered – and, really, how many pounds can a pet put on before a responsible owner takes steps to preserve the animal’s health?

Do you fine a pet owner, or perhaps charge a cleaning fee, when his or her dog defecates or urinates in the common areas? How about if it does so on the sidewalk in front of your building, which city laws require the co-op/condo keep clean? If you choose to fine, does it escalate after the first incident? And is there a limit as to how many times a dog can leave a mess in those areas – and if so, what action will the board take regarding the animal or the owner?

Do you want to limit the type of pet? Most pet-friendly buildings allow cats, dogs, fish, small caged birds, turtles (except for snapping ones, which are illegal), and pet rodents such as hamsters or mice. You don’t need to specifically prohibit wild animals such as iguanas, ferrets, monkeys, and snakes, which are illegal to keep as pets under New York City Public Health Code 161.01 (see the remarkably detailed and fascinating list at www.nycacc.org/researchtools.htm#).

Do you want to require that animals be spayed or neutered? The Humane Society of the United States advocates it for pets over six months old and suggests that landlords and others obtain written proof from a veterinarian, with exceptions for pets certified by a vet as being too old or sick for such surgery. In the rare cases of show dogs, which generally aren’t sterilized, you can make an exception based on proof.

Do you want an escrow deposit from pet owners? Victor Beube, building manager of the co-op at 1260 Amsterdam Avenue, successfully recommended to the board an idea that’s worked at the co-op next door, where he lives: get a $1,000 “security deposit,” which the board returns after five years. Getting the money back helps serve as an incentive for pet owners to follow the rules.

Do you want to specify areas such as an interior courtyard where a pet may be unleashed, or require that pets be kept leashed in all public areas at all times?

Do you want to specify “pet only” washing machines and dryers for pet owners who might have animal fur and dander on their clothes? This might be an extreme step in the absence of residents with certifiably serious allergies or other health issues, but it’s an option you should alert shareholders/owners to. Also on the extreme side, do you want to require proof of obedience training?

Issues of noise and smell are generally covered under proprietary leases’ habitability clauses or condo house rules. But you may want to set some time limits, such as continuous barking for an hour, for example, that can lead to reasonable corrective action. Dogs bark, requiring the same balance a board would apply to someone playing the God of War video game or watching Terminator 3 in surround sound. There’s going to be noise sometimes, not incessantly.

The Humane Society of Boulder Valley, Colorado, of all places, posts a sample pet policy online at www.boulderhumane.org/community/pet_friendly_pet_policy.htm, which you can adapt to your specific needs.

 

No-Pet Zone

Some co-ops or condos may choose to be a no-pet building, just as some are no-smoking buildings. This generally involves a “no-new-pet” policy, since existing pets are grandfathered under city statute in rent-stabilized apartments, co-ops, and Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island condos. Otherwise, they’re grandfathered under the tenets of human decency and common sense.

At Ruppert Yorkville Towers, a massive high-rise complex filling the area from East 90th to 92nd Streets between Second and Third Avenues, the board, in January 2004, enacted a no-new-pets policy that overreached and was then scaled back in May 2004. It requires that dogs wear identifying tags and be registered with the board, for a fee, and be licensed and vaccinated; that visiting dogs would not be allowed; and that owners would be responsible for damages caused by pets and for such nuisance violations as “making noise continuously and/or incessantly for a period of 10 minutes or intermittently for one hour or more.’’ It also set up a fine structure of $100 for the first infraction, $250 for the next, $300 for the third, and, after a fourth infraction, the removal of the pet from the premises within 30 days.

Rescinded were a provision disallowing replacement pets; another that pets be sterilized; and a third saying dogs could not be walked on East 91st Street, which, although closed to traffic, is a city-owned public thoroughfare and not within the board’s rights to control. The registration fee was reduced from $100 to $50.

The initial policy was put in place without warning, says board attorney Schechter, since “they were not looking to invite people who did not have a dog to get a dog,” and feared a last-minute stampede of residents getting dogs that would then be grandfathered.

That said, the building was pet-friendly when it was converted from a Mitchell-Lama development in February 2003. It was even advertised that way with “a huge white banner across the entrance at 91st Street, saying ‘Pet-Friendly Building,’” recalls one 20-year resident and current co-op owner, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of staff reprisal. The thoroughly conscientious pet owner and a kindly grandparent describes an unprovoked hostile atmosphere. “I remember one little snit – a new doorman in his early 20s, who beckoned me over and said, ‘I just want you to know I’m keeping my eye on you.’”

In any case, a developer enticing people to buy an apartment based on a particular premise, and then having the board it controls make an 180-degree turn a year later, is a recipe for revolt. A referendum, though not required by law, might have been a much smarter road to take. No one can blame the board if a majority of shareholders/owners vote to restrict pets, and pet owners will more readily accept the change and not bring lawyers, the press, and hostility to bear if they see it’s the will of the people. It’s both a fairer way and much less of a headache for the board.

The board, after all, has the leverage to enforce house rules, so callousness is inexcusable. Rules can be enforced assertively without being authoritarian; that’s a good general observation and, particularly so, when you’re dealing with deep emotional bonds that apply with a family pet. Try and picture how you’d want someone to speak to you about your incontinent parent or your “special-needs” child. If you can imagine someone being cold and harsh to you or your parent or child, well, that’s exactly what it’s like for a devoted pet owner.

At Ruppert Yorkville, for instance, the immediate $100 fine doesn’t take into consideration that a pet owner doesn’t want a pet to urinate in the lobby on the way out the door. But accidents happen even with the best-trained dog and a model dog owner, so why not penalize a first-time infraction with a warning rather than a fine? And having the same high, escalating monetary fines for a well-to-do young professional and for a retiree on a fixed income is unnecessarily draconian.

Of course, like arrogant parents who let their children run riot in restaurants, there are many bad dog owners out there. Just try and find an unsoiled part of Central Park outside the fenced areas, and heaven knows the sidewalks are littered with dog feces, and there are dog owners who may yell at you if you ask them to leash their pets. The critical thing to remember is that you’re setting policy for the people with whom you live and not looking to punish all the bad apples elsewhere.

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