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.”
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.