Adopting a no-pets policy is not enough. You actually need to have guidelines on implementing that policy. In New York City, the Pet Law requires that all co-ops and condos in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island must object to a pet brought into a building within three months of their first becoming aware of that pet. (The Pet Law does not apply to condos in Manhattan or the Bronx. If you’re in a condo in those areas and you have a no-pets policy, you can enforce it, and you’re not bound by the three-months rule. You do, however, still have to obey the Fair Housing Act.)
As an owner, a board also has to make accommodations if someone is seeking an emotional-support animal. There are guidelines to follow. You need to be very careful because you can get into some serious trouble by asking for the wrong information, by making too many demands, or just by trying to enforce a no-pets policy against someone who legitimately needs an emotional-support animal. If you violate the Fair Housing Act, you could end up facing administrative proceedings, a lawsuit, or just creating a lot of bad will aimed at the board.
You also need to be sure that you’re actually enforcing your policy. Your policy is useless if you never enforce it. For example, a building I represent had a no-pets policy. First, one resident brought in a dog, and nobody said anything. Another resident brought in a cat, and nobody said anything. Another person brought in a bird, and nobody said anything. Then there was another dog, but that dog barks all the time, and someone started complaining and wanted the prohibition on pets enforced. The building hasn’t been doing that, so it can’t suddenly start enforcing the policy against one resident and not everyone. The building has lost its enforcement power against all those other animals because three months have gone by since it first learned about their existence. So you must enforce your no-pets policy.
Another problem that buildings have is requiring an owner of a pet to sign some kind of written agreement about the pet that violates the Fair Housing Act – because it’s an emotional-support animal – or it deprives an owner of the ability to enjoy the building the same way everybody else does.
The solution is pretty simple. When you create a no-pets policy, you must also create a set of internal guidelines that govern how you’re going to enforce this policy. You will still have to allow emotional-support animals, but guidelines should create some kind of reporting chain for unauthorized pets. That includes how residents, staff, and board members report to management when they see or become aware of a pet that’s in violation of the no-pets policy.
The managing agent must make note of the specific date when someone became aware that there was a pet, because the clock for the three months starts ticking on that date. On learning of a pet, you must immediately send a warning letter to the pet owner, saying that keeping a pet in the building is a breach of the policy, explaining what the policy requires, and giving the owner a deadline to remove the pet.
When that deadline comes, the management company needs to follow up. It should check to see whether the pet has been removed from the building. If the pet is still there, the board needs to turn the matter over to its attorney. At the very least, legal action will need to be started before that three months is up.
Under the Fair Housing Act, the board is entitled to a letter from the pet owner’s health-care provider that identifies the pet owner’s physical or mental impairment – for example, anxiety, diabetes, PTSD – that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as sleeping or going out in public. And the letter should say how the support animal provides assistance, performs a task or service, or in some way alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms of the disorder.
If the animal is a dog or cat, you want to get a letter from a vet stating that the animal has been vaccinated for rabies in accordance with the city health code.
Once you’ve determined that a pet is indeed an emotional-support animal, or that it’s exempt under your policy for other reasons, you want to get everything in writing. You want an agreement with the owner that this specific pet has been approved, that if any future animal is desired, the resident will go through the approval process again. You can outline other terms. For example, you’re entitled under the Fair Housing Act to require that a dog must be on a leash, that the owner must clean up after the animal in common areas and keep the animal from wandering throughout the building.
I do want to emphasize that if the dog bites anyone, or is overly aggressive or a danger in any way, you do not have to approve it, even if it’s an emotional-support animal. But you have to document the animal’s objectionable behavior.
Theresa Racht is the principal at Theresa Racht Esq.