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 co-ops and condos in New Jersey have started to change their rules regarding pets and cultivate a 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 high-rise 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 throws a wrench into the implementation of some pet rules concerns shareholders or owners who need companion animals for medical reasons. While no one would argue 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.
“Some landlords and co-ops think they are just better off never allowing companion animals,” says Robert Marino, a real estate advisor, who served on his condo board for 11 years. “But there are a lot of benefits [to a building] in allowing them, because these days, more and more people want to have them. More and more people have them for reasons of disability—and when that happens, they have to be allowed anyway.
"A dog walking in a carpeted hallway causes no more damage than the parent with a baby carriage—probably less damage,” Marino continues. “And dogs, except when they're very old, rarely urinate or defecate in a hallway or lobby area. Boards should also realize that not only are you getting more prospective renters and buyers with relaxed pet rules, but you can charge them more money for rent, or have them pay a monthly pet fee.”
That's music to the ears of pet lovers, but for those who prefer for whatever reason to have only two-legged neighbors, it strikes an unhappy chord. “At the end of the day, I believe a duly-elected co-op board of directors should be permitted to make the decision on pet ownership in its co-op,” says one board president. “If the shareholders feel the board is acting arbitrarily and capricious in its decision-making capacity, it can vote them out and elect a new board. That is how democracy works, and a co-op in action is democracy at its most basic level.”
Pets and the Law
For condo buildings and HOAs looking to strike a peaceful balance between pet enthusiasts and their counterparts, "There are a number of general rules that can help keep things calm," says Melvyn Tarnopol, a partner with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP in Atlantic City. "Weight limits are useful to the extent that other unit owners can be afraid of large dogs. Condominiums can adopt leash rules so that dogs will not bother other unit owners, particularly in common areas such as elevators. Condos often limit the number of dogs or cats to two per household, to encourage cleanliness. Condominiums also need to set up procedures whereby neighbors can complain about noisy animals, and the pets are removed if their owners cannot control them. Certainly, making owners responsible for the behavior of their animals is a reasonable approach. Finally, unit owners can be required to sign pet applications that provide that the owner shall be liable for any damage caused by the pet."
How a co-op or condo association's particular pet rules are viewed in light of the law varies from state to state and township to township.
However, "generally speaking, an outright ban on pets is enforceable if that ban is set forth in either that condominium's bylaws or master deed," says David Byrne, an attorney and partner with the Princeton-based law firm of Herrick, Feinstein LLP. "In turn, should a condominium look to enact an outright ban where one does not already exist, it's best practice to seek to place that ban into either the bylaws or master deed. Any pet-related rules—typically—aside from an outright ban (i.e., leashes, registration fees, noise) can be enacted by the condominium's board of directors, subject to the bylaws of that condominium and the New Jersey's Condominium Act's provision regarding open board meetings and binding decisions."
As in most things, co-op boards have more direct authority over residents' pet ownership than do condo boards. “Unless it is in the offering plan and specifically says it would take a two-thirds majority resident vote to do it, co-ops can prohibit pets or outlaw any animals they want,” Marino says. “The courts have ruled consistently that they have the right to do it.”
When it comes to condos, it is more difficult to impose these types of rules simply because the condo unit owner owns the apartment free and clear, rather than simply owning shares of stock that allow the shareholder the right to buy, sell and live in the unit. If a condo allowed pets in the past and have changed their rules with the requisite majority vote, courts are likely to grandfather in the community's pet-owning residents.
And just because pets are little doesn't mean they can't cost a building or HOA big-time to remove them. In November of 2010 for example, an appeals court in New York City ruled against a condominium that had tried to kick out a Yorkshire terrier that had been living there before a pet ban was enacted in 2009. The appellate judges ruled that, while the condominium board had voted in favor of the ban, it was not enforceable because it had not been properly written into the bylaws and approved by 80 percent of the members. According to an attorney involved in the case, the condominium spent a cool $100,000 trying to evict a 3½ pound dog.
A Peaceable Kingdom
Even if a building's pets are an extremely well-behaved bunch, all it takes is one incident—an unpleasant experience in an elevator, a yapping puppy, 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, according to the pros. The small, enclosed space of an elevator cab is not the ideal meeting place for an excitable pet.
Regardless of an association's official rules, the quickest, easiest solution to pet conflict is some simple courtesy and sensitivity on the part of pet owners. If you're walking your dog, and meet a neighbor at the elevator, ask them if they're okay riding up or down with the animal. And remember, a leash is mandatory at all times—and secondly, you might consider using a side entrance or other alternate route rather than going straight through the lobby.
And it goes without saying that picking up after your pet is an absolute necessity. According to one board president, “Although most non-dog owning people who live in the community are OK with it being pet friendly, the two biggest issues have always been the failure of a small minority of irresponsible pet owners to pick up after or leash their dogs. As a result, you try to create a set of fair and reasonable house rules that deal with the issues of pets and then enforce them.”
Marino says he often gets requests from co-ops and condos for recommendations on creating rules that will keep pet owners and non-pet owners living in harmony.
“First of all, they should never ban breeds,” he says. “It’s actually been shown that smaller dogs have more bite incidents than larger dogs, so breed and weight restrictions don’t make sense. You need to make sensible building rules, such as no dogs off leashes in common areas, and if your dog has an accident, obviously, you need to clean it up.”
For buildings welcoming pets, it’s important to have a pet addenda in the house rules spelling out the expectations for the pet owner.
“What I recommend to buildings is to make everyone register their pets with the management office,” Marino says. “Plus, show proof of licensing and vaccinations.” Insurance can also cover the resident if their pet gets into some sort of altercation or trouble, and can protect the building as well. Just check with your insurance broker.
For those wondering if a board can turn down a prospective buyer if he or she admits to having animals and the rules don’t allow them—the answer is clear: A board should be able to turn down a prospective buyer when there is a compatibility issue between the co-op or HOA's house rules regarding pets and the prospective buyer who may have one.
According to Marino, regardless of whether you're okay in living with man’s best friend, “If everyone just is calm, cool and collected about pets, everyone can get along.”
Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator. Associate Editor Hannah Fons contributed to this article.