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The Unstoppable Rise of the Emotional Support Animal

New York City

Support Animals
July 24, 2018

A shareholder at a pet-free Manhattan co-op assumed that the dozen dogs in the building were service animals, vetted by the management company’s lawyers – but was shocked to learn they’re emotional-support pets. Why is the co-op obligated to accept animals that are not licensed service dogs despite its no-pets policy? 

Because federal, state, and city laws provide protections for emotional-support pets, replies the Ask Real Estate column in the New York Times. So, even if a building has a strict no-pets policy, it must provide reasonable accommodation for a resident with a doctor-certified disability who requests such a pet. 

“There seems to be an explosion in the demand for emotional-support animals, which has led to some questionable doctor certification,” says attorney Sherwin Belkin, a partner at Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman

Management is entitled to proof, such as a letter from a health-care provider, attesting to the disability and explaining how the animal would alleviate the condition. Building lawyers typically review such requests, but denying one poses risks. A tenant could file a complaint with the city’s Commission on Human Rights. If an investigation finds evidence of discrimination, the building could face fines of up to $250,000, and the resident could be awarded damages

Unlike a trained service dog, such as a seeing-eye dog, an emotional-support animal does not need formal training. As requests for emotional support animals have proliferated, websites have cropped up that will generate a doctor’s note without physically examining an applicant. At ESA Doctors, for example, one can simply fill out a 15-minute questionnaire and pay the $159 fee. An ESA Doctors therapist follows up by email, according to the website. For $40, a pet owner can buy an emotional support vest to give an animal a more official look. 

Even if pets receive a therapy exemption, however, they still can’t be a nuisance to neighbors. That is defined in most leases as “repeated and ongoing behavior that alters the neighbors’ ability to live in their homes safely and comfortably.” This may include loud barking, urinating in public areas of the building, or producing foul odors.

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