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‘Pandemic Pets’ in Multifamily Communities Rules vs. Reasonable Accommodation

The coronavirus crisis has forced many unwelcome changes on households around the world—but it has also allowed or inspired some to make lifestyle choices that were impractical or otherwise out of reach before. One such choice has been to acquire a pet. With travel restricted, and working and schooling largely happening at home, households across the country decided that if there was ever a time to add a furry (or feathered, or scaly) friend to the family, this was it. 

 But for the 74 million Americans who live in communities managed by homeowners associations or cooperative corporations, according to estimates by the Community Associations Institute (CAI), bringing a pet home involves considerations that those in detached, single-family homes don’t have to contend with. For one thing, many communities simply prohibit pets altogether. Of those that do welcome pets, most have rules—which residents agreed to follow upon becoming a unit owner or shareholder—limiting the species, breeds, sizes, or number of animals residents can harbor in their homes, as well as registration requirements and rules about where the pets are allowed to be on the property. And it’s a given that no pet may interfere with the habitability or quiet enjoyment of their neighbors’ homes.

 Along with the rules, there are practical considerations for would-be pet owners, too. In many multifamily communities, having a pet—especially one that needs to go out several times a day like a dog—requires taking that animal through the property’s common areas: the hallways, lobbies, elevators, vestibules, outdoor paths, and so forth. With the ongoing pandemic keeping people at home, that means more interactions between pets, their owners, and their neighbors. An unruly or aggressive pet in an enclosed space (like an elevator or stairwell) is a big problem; it’s also problematic for someone who’s highly allergic to fur or dander. And while vaccination rates are improving and mask requirements in common areas are de rigueur, there’s still a pandemic on; many residents are understandably un-thrilled at the prospect of crowded elevators and lobbies full of rambunctious pups and their owners trying to get outside for morning walkies.   

Pet, or Emotional Support Animal?

 According to managers, attorneys, and boards, claims for special accommodations for emotional support animals (ESAs) have been trending upward in condo associations and co-ops around the country for the last several years, starting around 2015. Jim Yost, owner of Elite Management and Advisory Services, LLC and managing partner of Ocean Property Management Corporation based in Wildwood, says he thinks the uptick may be linked to commercial airlines changing or clarifying their policies around animals riding in the cabin— specifically their distinctions (or lack thereof) between official service animals, ESAs (also known as ‘comfort animals’), and pets. He suspects that different classifications between airlines have resulted in a lot of conflation of terms and  willful misuse of the various designations. 

 First, let’s get those distinctions out of the way. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service animals as dogs (and only dogs as of March 15, 2011, although there are separate provisions for certain miniature horses) that are individually and specially trained to do work or perform specific tasks for people with disabilities in direct relation to those specific disabilities, such as a guide dog for someone with legal blindness, or an alert dog for someone with a seizure disorder. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. However, multifamily buildings and communities are subject to rules and guidelines of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA). Notably, HUD does include animals that provide emotional support in its definition of “assistance animals,” and distinguishes those animals from “pets” if that support “alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability.”

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