Pet Peeves Making and Enforcing Fair Pet Rules

 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 condos and  HOAs in South Florida and around the country have started to change their rules  regarding pets and it’s a much more welcoming atmosphere for animals.  

 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 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.  

 Pets and the Law

 An issue that can complicate the implementation of some pet rules concerns  residents who need companion animals for medical reasons. While no one would  argue (indeed, it would be illegal) 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.  

 According to South Florida condo attorney Gary Poliakoff, a founding shareholder  of the law firm of Becker & Poliakoff in Fort Lauderdale, recent HUD rulings say that a prescription for an  emotional support animal may come from a “physician, psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professional.” In Florida, “other mental health professionals” include licensed mental health counselors, clinical psychologists, clinical  social workers and marriage and family therapists.  

 According to Barry M. Silver, an attorney in Boca Raton, who deals with  animal-related cases as a part of his regular practice, the law regarding  medically-prescribed companion animals is evolving. “That definition is based on case law, and what judges have determined it to be.  Usually you need something from a doctor saying that the dog is medically  necessary.”  

 And what constitutes a medical necessity in the eyes of the law is also  evolving, says Silver. “Nowadays, many courts are accepting psychological companionship as something  that can be considered medically necessary as well,” he says. “It’s been clearly established that love, affection and companionship are absolutely  necessary to the human condition, and people will greatly benefit from that.  Pets seem to give unconditional love, they don’t remember if you do something wrong, and they don’t care about your faults. So many people consider non-humans to be wonderful  companions, [with] a great psychological benefit for people who are dealing  with difficult things like depression, or other psychological ailments. So very  often doctors prescribe companionship.”  

 According to Maida W. Genser, the founder and president of Citizens for Pets in  Condos, Inc., a non-profit organization based in Tamarac, whose mission is to  promote responsible pet ownership and increase acceptance of companion animals  in common interest ownership communities, “A companion animal and a pet are probably the same thing. Service animals  provide assistance by doing tasks they were trained to do that help people with  physical or emotional problems. Service animals are covered by disability law  under the U.S. Department of Justice. Emotional support animals are covered  under fair housing law and administered through HUD, which applies to condos  and co-ops as long as they have more than four units. Emotional support animals  do not have to be trained to provide assistance, because they provide it just  by what they do naturally through that close human-animal bond. That alone can  help people with anxiety and depression.”  

 Knowing—and Enforcing—the Rules

 According to Genser, communities in some parts of South Florida tend to skew  toward the no-pets end of the spectrum. “Most of our requests for assistance come from Miami-Dade and Broward counties,” she says. “We also get a few from the Sarasota area. The newer [condos] and the more  expensive ones tend to allow pets, but there are thousands of people in places  where pets aren’t allowed - and people will hide them, because it’s a natural thing to want to have something cuddly.”  

 Refusing to honor a resident's legitimate companion-animal prescription can have  serious legal consequences for a board, says Silver. “If they refuse, they could be inviting a lawsuit. Many people think if you get  involved in a lawsuit over an animal the financial aspect is going to be small,  but of course, people who are involved with co-op and condos know...the price  of challenging a resident's right to own a pet or companion animal can be very  high. It can be an expensive proposition.”  

 That being said, most attorneys will agree that when people move intoa condo association or co-op, they are responsible for knowing and abiding by  the rules and regulations spelled out in the governing documents they are given  to examine prior to closing the sale. Ignorance of or disagreement with—a particular rule is not considered grounds for flouting it.  

 According to Eric M. Glazer, an attorney and founding partner of Glazer & Associates, P.A., and the president of Association Mediation, Inc. in  Hollywood, the topic of pets is probably the most litigated issue in  condominium associations, after foreclosures. In a recent response to a  question about pet rules published on the Florida Sun Sentinel's website, Glazer stressed that “You must understand that there are people who choose to move into communities  just because pets are not allowed. They don’t want the smell, the noise and some are simply afraid of animals. The bottom  line is that before moving into a community, you must read the declaration of  condominium to learn if pets are allowed. If they aren't, then your response  should not be to move in, purchase a pet, and then gamble that the board won’t find out, and then complain when the board does find out and decides to sue.”  

 And even if an HOA allows animals, and its pets are an extremely well-behaved  bunch, all it takes is one incident—an unpleasant experience in an elevator, a new puppy yapping at all hours, 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 legal pros say pops up in pet-related  spats all the time. That's where the courtesy and respect comes into play.  

 “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,” says one pro-pet real estate advisor. “Some people may just opt to use the side doors or service elevators with their  pets. Of course, pets always need to be on a leash, and if your dog has an  accident, obviously you need to clean it up immediately.”  

 Groups like Genser's can help boards and managers promote and encourage  cooperation and compromise among pro-pet and non-pet residents.  

 “We provide resources on our web page (www.petsincondos.org),” says Genser. “We have information on legal pet documents, we publish information on what  responsible pet ownership is, and how to change your living area to be more pet  friendly.”  

 The group also promotes the idea of forming pet committees in buildings and  condo associations. “Pet committees are something the major animal welfare organizations have come up  with where you have a group of responsible pet owners who meet regularly and  help deal with any pet issues that come up,” Genser explains. “One of the problems with association living is that you relieve the city and  county of a lot of responsibility. Condos are largely self-regulating, and you  want people who know how to deal with animals and are responsible.”  

 Paper Protection

 For buildings welcoming pets, it’s important to have a pet addenda in the house rules spelling out the  expectations for the pet owner.  

 “You can put all sorts of provisions into the governing documents, and of course  those will hold up in court,” says Silver. “Sometimes a blanket prohibition against all animals won’t work unless there is some type of exception made for medically-necessary  animals. However, even if that is the case, short of putting in a complete ban,  the association is always free to amend its rules such that no one is allowed  to cause a nuisance—and that provision could include things about animals causing a nuisance.”  

 Other possibilities that give boards a measure of control over their community's  menagerie include having everyone register their pets with the management  office, requiring proof of licensing and vaccinations. It's also not out of the  question to inquire about extra insurance coverage for pets and their owners.  

 Ultimately, says Genser, “Association rules should concentrate on irresponsible pet owners”—not on respectful, rule-abiding owners and their well-behaved furry friends.  

 With fair rules, consistent enforcement, and respect between residents, allowing  pets in HOAs need not turn into a three-ring circus.     

 Keith Loria is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The South Florida  Cooperator. Associate Editor Hannah Fons contributed to this article.  

 

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5 Comments

  • My landlord in my condo rental has said it is ok to have my emotional support animal, however, she is requiring a $400.00 deposit. She told me people after I depart are allergic to dogs and such so no matter what the carpet must be replaced, etc. If I do not give her the deposit, I can expect to have that money removed from my security deposit. This used to be a pet friendly community, so there are other dogs here. I was told by her that as of September 1st, 2014 she no longer accepts dogs. Mine is under 20 lbs and is a registered emotional support dog with all documents from my psychiatrist and I am awaiting my permanent disability court date. Is this landlord allowed to act this way? I am in Tamarac, Fl.
  • Yes - If you want a pet pay for them. My home was destroyed by pets who were not on the lease. It`s 3 years later and I still cannot correct all the damage financially - I cannot afford to. You are destroying and invading other people`s hard earned property - so you need to pay for it. I would charge about 2000. since it cost that much to replace carpeting.
  • can a hoa house community make a committee w/o homeowners approval and charge $100 if you do not have your dog registered? What if you have relatives stay in your home at times with you and the dogs are theirs?
  • Can my fl condo association restrict where we can go o. The property with our empty support dog? Not toilet issues just say accompanying us in common patio areas?
  • On Dec 1st i putchased an older condo in a community that has a no pets rule. Although there are known support pets living here, it is still the rule. I wondered why I was coughing at night, scratching my nose, eyes, face and was told two weeks ago by another owner that my previous owner had had a cat for years. I have known most of my life I'm extremely allergic to cats but when i viewed the place, her grandson and agent, knew pets weren't permitted and never disclosed. I have paid to have carpets scrubbed, findimg hands full of cathair. Painted my bedroom and beginning to paint other rooms. None of this has helped, my sinuses are a mess, i still wake up coughing and can't sleep remainder of night. I temoved a small sofa she left here, valance both full of hair anything that could hold cat hair. I have my own furniture here since I moved in, now probably saturated with hair. We discussed during assoc meeting last Monday, including management group. My issue was essentially dismissed, along with other non owners pet concerns. Do I have any legal course of action against previous owner, association or management group, especially previous owner? Just removing carpet and replacing with something that isn't going to collect hair. I purchased a box fan and hepa filter to suck the hair out. The ac filters were full of hair, I've replaced. I'm paying people to do things to get this resolved. I'm 72 and must now paint everything else myself as i can't afford more workers now. J paid $100K for this place and I'm miserable. My agent was gone most of Nov and did not ask about pets, we both assumed it was a clean place. Help please with some guidance. Thank you.