Ask the Attorney: Keeping a Pet in a New York City Apartment
(Column: Ask the Attorney)
Written by Guest Columnist Dinah Luck, Senior Staff Attorney, MFY Legal Services
Question: I heard from a friend that I might have a special right to have a pet because I have a psychiatric disability. Is this true? How do I make sure I won’t get in trouble with my landlord if a get the pet? I live in a NYCHA apartment.
Answer: Your friend is sort of right. Some people with psychiatric disabilities can have a pet known as an “emotional support animal.” Federal and state anti-discrimination statutes require landlords to make reasonable accommodations for a person’s disability. An emotional support animal serves a similar purpose as assistive animals for people with physical disabilities, such as guide dogs for the visually impaired. An emotional support animal can help a person with a psychiatric disability live in the community by providing companionship and stability. The responsibility of caring for a pet can also provide purpose and motivation for some people with disabilities. Just as landlords must allow a visually impaired tenant to keep a guide dog, a landlord may be required to allow a psychiatrically disabled tenant to keep an emotional support animal.
Not every person who has a psychiatric disability will qualify to have an emotional support animal. To understand why, think of the animal as a form of medicine or other treatment—not everyone with a disability needs to take the same kind of medicine, and not everyone with a disability needs an emotional support animal to live in the community. It is not easy to prove that you need an emotional support animal, and a lot of landlords are suspicious of such requests. Therefore, if you have a right to keep a pet under another law, you may wish to go that route.
Because you live in NYCHA housing, you do not need to get special permission to have an emotional support animal; you can just get an animal that complies with NYCHA rules. You are allowed to have one dog (weighing less than 40 pounds) or one cat. You can also have small caged birds, fish, and small caged animals such as guinea pigs and gerbils. There are other rules about keeping animals in NYCHA apartments which you can find at www.cityofnewyork.us/html/nycha/html/residents/petpolicy.shtml or by talking to your housing assistant.
People who don’t live in NYCHA apartments, but who live in rental apartments with more than three units and who already have a pet may be able to keep their pet under the “Pet Law.” A landlord is deemed to have waived its right to enforce a no-pet clause in a lease if a person has kept a pet “openly and notoriously” for more than three months, and the landlord knew or should have known about the pet. It is important for tenants to be aware that is it always risky to rely on the Pet Law and get a pet without having permission from your landlord. The landlord can take you to Housing Court when he discovers the pet, and you may have to choose between your home or your pet.
If someone doesn’t qualify to have a pet under the NYCHA rules or the Pet Law, they can try to get permission to have an emotional support animal. To qualify to have an emotional support animal, you have to meet the following requirements: you must have a disability, you must be qualified to live in the housing, you must be reasonable in the type of animal you want to keep, and you must need the animal in order to live in the housing.
The last requirement can be the most difficult to prove. You will need clinical proof that having the animal is necessary in order for you to use and enjoy your home and live in the community. Having the emotional support animal must help you cope with the symptoms of your disability. For example, if you have Major Depression, you might need the animal to motivate you to leave your apartment by taking a dog for walks, taking the pet to the vet, or buying supplies. This requirement means that you have to disclose some facts about your disability to your landlord.
All these laws are more complex than can be explained in a single column. For more advice, contact a housing law attorney or look for “Keeping Your Pet in a NYC Apartment: A Tenants’ Guide to New York City’s Pet Laws,” to be published soon by MFY Legal Services. It will be available at www.mfy.org.