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The Legal Beagle
Finding pet friendly housing and keeping it that way
Tips from the Center for Animal Care and Control:
"No Pets Allowed" - Do fish count?
Did you know that a covert fish tank in a "No Pets" apartment could get you soaked in landlord/tenant court, but a dog that helped your next-door neighbor quit smoking can be a perfectly legal resident?
The "No Pet" Provision
Chances are you've seen, heard about or even signed a leased for an apartment in New York City with those three little words: No Pets Allowed. However, there is a significant but very specific exception to this clause. According to current local law, the "no pets" provision can be waived for the duration of the tenancy "if the landlord fails to enforce the no pet provision by commencing an action or proceeding within three months of the tenant's open and notorious harboring of the pet".
Unfortunately, according to Sarah Stone, legal aide at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Manhattan headquarters, many New Yorkers see the "three months" part and not the "open and notorious" part of this important law. Stone knows this first hand-many of the animals downstairs from her office waiting for new homes ended up there because of a landlord-tenant dispute where the landlord won.
"You don't necessarily have to go to your landlord and say 'Hi! I have a dog upstairs!', but you can't hide it, either", Stone says. In other words, if you've been walking Mitzy twice a day, every day, in and out of the front door of the building and letting the doorman pet her for the past three months, the landlord may have lost his or her right to evict you for having an animal in your "No Pets" apartment. In fact, they may not even be able to refuse to renew your lease when it expires, says Karen Copeland, Esq., an expert in companion animal housing issues in New York City. On the other hand, if you've been tucking your Dachshund into your Coach bag every day, shimming down the fire escape and blaming the barking coming from your apartment on acting class, well, you may be in trouble.
"It's important to prove when you [the tenant] got the pet, and when the landlord, by way of its agents and employees, became aware of the pet, and that the keeping of the pet was "open and notorious," Copeland says. One savvy tip she offers: take pictures of the pet in the apartment and in the building and date-stamping them. "A photo of you, the dog and the doorman next to the building Christmas display would show that the building's agents were aware of the [pet] at a certain point in time," Copeland says.
The second legal provision all New York pet owners should know deals with matters of discrimination. The same federal, state and local laws which prohibit discrimination against the disabled may also allow a tenant to keep a pet in spite of a "no pet" rule. The laws mandate that a landlord grant the "reasonable accommodations" necessary for a disabled person to "use and enjoy" their home. Remember the dog that helped its owner kick cigarettes mentioned at the beginning of this article? This was an actual case that the tenant and pet won, says Copeland.
"The law includes, but is not limited to, seeing eye dogs and hearing dogs, but also companion animals who provide the service of emotional support to their disabled owners," Copeland says. She cites one case where the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development fined a co-op board several thousand dollars for refusing to grant a shareholder the "reasonable accommodation" of a "no pets" waiver. The woman suffered from chronic depression. Her psychiatrist testified she should be allowed to keep her Yorkshire terrier because she benefits from "the unconditional love the dog provides."
It's imperative to keep in mind when reading these anecdotal cases that every case is different. Just because a court ruled in favor of a tenant in one instance does not guarantee they will rule the same way in all other cases. Remember the fish story (no pun intended) mentioned earlier, which asked whether keeping live fish in a "no pets" apartment could land someone in hot water with the landlord? That's true, too. "Someone recently called me because her landlord said the "no pets" rule for her apartment included fish; the landlord said he didn't want the tanks on the floor," Stone says.
Be especially careful of pushing the pet envelope if you're in a tasty rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartment where the landlord may be waiting for an excuse to get you out. And always keep in mind that co-op and condo boards are entitled to make their own by-laws governing pet ownership, by-laws that you, as a shareholder or owner, voluntarily agreed to live by.
Bottom line? Yes, you have rights as a pet owner. Yes, you can sometimes successfully challenge a "no pet" clause in your lease. But that "no pet" clause gives your landlord every right to take you to court, which can cost you time, money, and, yes, your pet.
"I think the only safe thing you can do is sit down with the landlord and be honest," Stone suggests. "If you sign a lease that has a 'no pets' clause, your landlord can take you to court at any time during the "three month" period. The landlord can tell you to leave, and they have every right to ask." But you don't have to concede defeat immediately. "If you are caught, it may be possible, under the statute, to keep your companion animal," Copeland says.
If all else fails, the ASPCA has a wealth of information that may be helpful should you find yourself facing a date in housing court. They cannot, however, provide legal advice or act as an attorney for outside organizations or individuals.
Do you have a legal question for Ms. Copeland? Email it to email@example.com. She may answer it in a future issue of New York Tails!
Click here for more articles about the legal rights of pet owners in New York.
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