When Your Landlord Says Either Your Pet Goes or You Do
People show up at animal shelters and rescue groups in New York City all the time with this problem: they think they have to get rid of their pets or they'll be evicted.
They're often wrong.
In New York City there's a program called Pets for Life NYC that lets people know what their rights are and often helps them keep their pets. Calling Pets for Life (917-468-2938) can point you in the right direction.
Darryl Vernon, a New York attorney who specializes in tenants' rights to have pets, says, "It's crucial that people talk to a lawyer very early so they understand their rights." For starters, there's a three-month law that protects pet owners who live in buildings with three or more units. According to Vernon, the best thing is for people to know about the three-month rule and their rights under the disability laws. "Both are powerful defenses against any action brought by a landlord or co-op or condominium to make someone get rid of their dog or move out of their home," he says.
According to Companion Animals in NYC Apartments – 2009 Edition, a brochure published by the NYC Bar Association Committee on Legal Issues Pertaining to Animals, "once a companion animal lives in a multiple dwelling (a building with three or more residential units) for three or more months, openly and notoriously (not hidden from the building's owners, their agents, and on-site employees), then any no-companion animal clause in a lease is considered waived and unenforceable."
Unfortunately, many people give up their pets because they've signed a lease that specifies no cats or dogs, and they think that's it. But the three-month rule overrides any agreement to the contrary.
The law also says tenants aren't obliged to tell the landlord or his/her building agents about their pet. If a building employee knows of the pet, even if the building owners don't know, that starts the three-month rule running. If the landlord doesn't bring legal action against you within that three-month period, your pet is in like Flynn. Even if your landlord tells you to get out, you don't have to. Only a judge can order you out.
If your landlord wants you to move because your pet does things that irritate your neighbors, you can get help for that, too. Pets for Life NYC can connect you with trainers and behaviorists who will work with you and your pet to correct the bothersome behavior.
And there other recourses available to you. For example, if the "no pet" provision in your lease is in type smaller than eight points or otherwise visibly unclear, then your landlord can't use that lease as evidence to get rid of you.
Also, disability laws override any agreement to the contrary. "It's like writing an agreement that if you need a wheelchair, you can't bring it into your apartment. You can't discriminate against people who have a disability. And a reasonable accommodation can, in many instances, mean having a dog or other companion animal in your apartment," says Vernon.
Federal, state, and city laws may also protect your right to have your companion animal. Companion Animals in NYC Apartments – 2009 Edition states: "Under the federal Fair Housing Act 22, people with disabilities have been successful in arguing that, in certain circumstances, landlords must allow them to have a companion animal who provides them with emotional support as a reasonable accommodation."
According to Vernon, any animal can be a service animal. He explains, "What defines a disability? The exact words are 'your disability substantially interferes with a major life activity.' That can be a whole host of things, like high blood pressure that's so bad it interferes with major life activities, meaning work, socializing, eating, or going out. And depression is a disability. Not just everyday depression, but something chronic, serious, very debilitating. Depression can easily interfere with major life activities."
But don't take your animal in to be certified, take yourself. You'll need to get a letter from your health care provider, the details of which are illustrated in this sample letter. When your companion animal has been determined to be "medically necessary," a court can rule that your pet must be permitted to live with you.
Westchester County has similar laws. The ASPCA and The Humane Society of the United States are working with other states to develop similar programs. Anita Kelso Edson, Senior Director of Media and Communication for the ASPCA, says "The emotional support animal concept is rooted in federal law, so it would be the same state to state."
In New York City, the only animals that aren't protected by the pet law are those whose owners live in New York City Housing (NYCHA). The New York City Housing Authority last year passed a law prohibiting any dog weighing over 25 pounds or any Doberman, Pit Bull, or Rottweiler. (Actually, there is no such breed as a Pit Bull — they're usually a mix of an American Staffordshire Terrier and some other dog.) But even tenants of NYCHA have some recourse. For details, visit our Important Information for NYCHA Residents with Pets page.
According to the NYC Bar Association Committee on Legal Issues Pertaining to Animals, if your landlord refuses to make a reasonable accommodation after being notified of your rights, relief can be sought at the New York City Commission on Human Rights, at the NYS Division of Human Rights, and at the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Enforcement, and in federal and state courts.
For a full description of your rights, contact an attorney knowledgeable in this area. You can find a lawyer through the NYC Bar's Legal Referral Service at (212) 382-7373 or www.nycbar.org, or check our Legal Resources page.
On its website, the ASPCA advises, "If you are a NYCHA resident, you may have the legal right to keep your dog without risking your home. Contact attorney Darryl Vernon at (212) 949-7300 or firstname.lastname@example.org if you are approached by NYCHA management about your dog. Or you can contact the ASPCA Legal Department, 424 East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128.
MFY Legal Services of New York City also publishes a comprehensive pamphlet on pet owners' rights, Keeping Your Pet in a NYC Apartment: A Tenant's Guide to New York City's Pet Laws. Even before the introduction, it quotes Hon. Douglas E. McKeon in the case of 184 West 10th Street Corp. v. Marvits: "Indeed, so strong can be the bond between owner and pet that society recognizes the need for laws to protect each from the unscrupulous who would prey on one's love for an animal to achieve their own selfish ends."
Note: This article is not offered as legal advice and should not be relied upon for particular matters without the independent advice of counsel qualified in these issues. The law in this area changes frequently, and the information provide herein may be outdated. For counsel, contact your lawyer or one of the legal resources that can be found on our Legal Resources page.
About the Author
Jane Warshaw is a former advertising copywriter who is now a freelance writer specializing in animal rights, animal welfare, and human health and rights issues. Her work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Villager, HuffingtonPost.com, TheMorningLine.com, Tango.com, and the TimesLedger and Manhattan Media newspapers. A graduate of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she now lives in New York City with three cats, a rescued racing Greyhound, and a rotating cast of foster cats and kittens who she cares for until they're healthy and happy enough to be adopted into permanent homes.