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Tenant Advocacy Program Helps Tenants with Pet-Related Housing Issues

Matt Wildman is a volunteer for the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals. Matt runs the Alliance’s one-of-a-kind Tenant Advocacy Program, which has helped nearly 300 pet owners keep their pets since 2015. This includes pet owners who are private renters, coop owners, New York City Housing Authority residents, and residents in Department of Homeless Services (DHS) shelters. 

Many of the tenants Matt assists have cats or dogs (and sometimes rabbits) who function as emotional support animals. Under state and federal fair housing laws, tenants with physical or mental disabilities that significantly limit major life activities have a legal right to keep their animal(s) in their residence if they have a letter from a clinician verifying the disability and documenting their patient’s need for the animal. So even if a lease includes a no-pet clause, a landlord is required to make what is called “reasonable accommodation” to allow pets that serve as assistance animals, which includes animals who provide emotional support.

Matt also assists tenants who have a legal right to keep their pet because of the unique 3 Month Law. This law states that residents living in buildings with more than three units may keep a pet in a no-pet building if that animal has been kept “openly and notoriously” for three months or more. Essentially, once a landlord or employee of the landlord acknowledges the tenant has a pet, or there is adequate reason to think the landlord should have been aware of the pet, the landlord has three months to take the tenant to court for violating the no-pets lease. If the landlord does not act within these three months, the landlord waives their right to enforce their no-pets policy. 

However, many pet owners with legal standing to keep their pet as an emotional support animal or who are protected by the NYC Pet Law bow to pressure from their landlord to give up their pet because they lack adequate information and guidance to dispute a landlord’s demands. For these pet owners, Matt’s tenant advocacy services are invaluable, providing them with free resources, advocacy, and support – from information on what content is necessary for a valid clinician’s letter, to contacting management companies and their attorneys on behalf of tenants, to partnering with Animal Care Centers of NYC (ACC) to provide foster homes for the animals while the reasonable accommodation process is under review. 

“Receiving a call or letter from a landlord saying ‘Remove your pet or face eviction’ is terrifying,” says Matt, “and there are not many accessible and free resources for people in this situation, particularly for tenants who are lower income. I am able to tell the tenant, ‘Here is what this letter from your landlord means, these are your options, based on my experience this is what is likely to happen next, and, most importantly, here is how I can advocate for you and your pet.’”

Sweet Success Stories!

Matt described two recent cases in which the Tenant Advocacy Program helped to bring about successful outcomes for pet owners.

An older gentleman (whom we will call Mr. Smith) and his wife arrived at an ACC shelter to surrender their small dog, Chance. They were heartbroken. They had moved into a new building that did not allow pets. So ACC referred Mr. Smith to the Alliance’s Tenant Advocacy Program for help. 

Mr. Smith had a strong claim to Chance as an emotional support animal. He was in treatment, and so his clinician wrote a letter requesting reasonable accommodation for Mr. Smith to keep Chance with him in his home. Matt corresponded with the attorneys for the management company, while ACC fostered Chance for nearly a month. When the reasonable accommodation request was approved several weeks ago, Chance and Mr. Smith were reunited.

Following the reunification, Mr. Smith’s wife thanked ACC and Matt for their help. She said that her husband had lost weight during the process because he feared he was never going to see Chance again. “Today was the first day he has eaten a whole meal because [Chance] came home to him!” she said.

Another of Matt’s cases involved a woman, who we will call Judy, who was living in a DHS residence. “Despite its strict no-pets policy, DHS has a process in which residents can request reasonable accommodation to bring their animal into their residence if the cat or dog functions as an emotional support animal,” says Matt. “However, the process is complicated, lengthy, and often requires advocacy.” 

Judy had entrusted her cat Cola to a relative to care for him temporarily. She had received mixed messages from the shelter system about what she needed to do to request reasonable accommodation so that Cola, who functions as an emotional support animal, could live with her. After five months without her cat, Judy contacted the Tenant Advocacy Program. Matt guided her in the process of how to request reasonable accommodation, and three weeks later her request was approved. Judy gave Cola a party when he arrived – complete with balloons!

As a bonus, Matt also assisted Judy in getting Cola neutered with the help of ACC.

Matt is always gratified when he can play a part in keeping pets with their people, where they belong. And as demonstrated by the happy endings above, his clients are ecstatic.

If you or someone you know has pet-related housing issues, e-mail matt@animalalliancenyc.org or call 347-938-7692.

 Note: The names of pets and pet owners featured here have been changed for confidentiality reasons.