Fighting a No-Pets Eviction With Doctors’ Notes and a Federal Suit
By Matt A.V. Chaban
Outside the brick behemoths of the East River Housing co-op on the Lower East Side is an inscription quoting Sidney Hillman, the labor leader who helped build these affordable homes for thousands of garment workers and others:
“We want to have an America that will have no sense of insecurity and make it possible for all groups, regardless of race, creed or color, to live in friendship, to be real neighbors.”
Just so long as those neighbors do not have any pets. For the past 84 years, the board and managers of the sprawling 1,627-apartment property have maintained a fairly strict no-pets policy.
America, or rather the federal government, wants to change that.
For the past two years, the board has sought to evict the dogs of three residents, or their owners should they refuse to comply. All three residents have claimed medical necessity in having pets: that the animals help stabilize depression, anxiety and other afflictions, an increasingly common practice in the city. But because the East River Housing residents sought exemptions only after the building found out about the dogs, the board maintains their doctors’ notes and therapeutic claims are a ruse.
“The board has no problem accommodating pets,” Bradley Silverbush, the board’s lawyer, said. “The problem is with people trying to sneak in their animals and then thinking they can pull a fast one when they get caught.”
But where the board saw chicanery, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development found discrimination. After a series of losses for the three residents in housing and state appeals courts over the past two years, they filed complaints last year with HUD, arguing that the building was violating their rights under the Fair Housing Act by discriminating on the basis of disability.
The agency agreed and referred the cases to the Department of Justice, which sued the co-op in federal court in Manhattan in December. Papers have been traded all winter and spring, and it looks as if there will be little resolution until pretrial hearings set for fall.
Stephanie Aaron, one of the East River Housing tenants involved in the eviction fight, readily admits that she knew the rules. “I had no intention of keeping Rosie,” she said while sitting inside her 15th-floor apartment, with views stretching from the World Trade Center to the Empire State Building. “But I saved her life and she saved mine.”
Ms. Aaron has suffered from depression since childhood, but she is warm and animated around Rosie, an American Staffordshire terrier-boxer mix who has the sylvan coat and build of a pit bull. Ms. Aaron is quick to point out that distinction, knowing the harsh reputation most pit bulls face, and to which she feels she is subjected by some neighbors.
She found the dog tied to a bench in East River Park almost two years ago. It was the middle of a heat wave, the dog was desperately panting, and Ms. Aaron brought Rosie home to cool her down and try to find the owner.
None ever materialized. What did show up within weeks was a letter from the board saying she had 10 days to get rid of the dog.
Ms. Aaron, who lives alone, became distraught. When she fretted to her psychiatrist, the doctor said it would be good for her health to keep Rosie, and wrote a letter to the board. The board rejected the request and instead took Ms. Aaron to housing court, where a judge ruled against her. Her appeal to the state’s Human Rights Commission was also rejected.
“The evidence does not support that complainant’s dog is necessary, as opposed to helpful, to the use and enjoyment of her home,” the commission’s decision said.
Ms. Aaron finds the argument absurd. “It’s like saying you can’t take this new medication because you’ve never taken it before,” she said. “If it helps, that is all that matters.”
Steven Gilbert, another of the three tenants fighting the eviction, does not even have a dog; he was simply watching one for a friend when the board found out and asked him to remove it, which he did. But the thought of having a companion enticed him, so he requested a waiver on the same grounds as Ms. Aaron: The dog had improved his mental health. He was rejected on the same grounds, for asking after the fact, and is currently battling over more than $30,000 in legal fees the board wants him to reimburse for defending his discrimination claim.
Lawyers for boards and landlords worry that if the government prevails in its case, it could create a stampede of little paws into buildings where they are supposedly barred. In the same way prescriptions for medical marijuana are sometimes seen as a scheme, they fear the same could happen here. “We’re already seeing a lot of suspicious prescriptions,” Todd Nahins, a real estate lawyer, said.
And just how much these dogs help remains a matter of dispute.
Amy Eisenberg, the third member of the suit, got a cockapoo in early 2012 and found that it helped with stress related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. She worked in a building across the street from the World Trade Center and watched the event unfold. But Ms. Eisenberg’s doctor, who initially supported the claim, has since withdrawn support for the dog, though the government continues to sustain her case.
What bothers the three tenants most, they said, is that theirs are not the only dogs in the development. A private investigator hired by Ms. Eisenberg documented dozens of dogs coming and going in a two-hour stretch this year. Ms. Aaron’s dog walker said his business was made up entirely of a dozen dogs living at East River Housing. And part of the case against Ms. Aaron involves a fight Rosie had with another resident’s dog, though that person has faced no penalty from the board.
Many of these dogs either belonged to longtime tenants, said Mr. Silverbush, the board’s lawyer, or slipped in through a city rule that allows tenants to keep pets if they have lived openly in the building for 90 days without objection.
“If the neighbors don’t complain, what can we do?” he said.
“And,” Mr. Silverbush added, “it shows we do not discriminate against all dog owners.”
Stephanie Aaron, with her dog, Rosie, is a resident at East River Housing, where she is one of three tenants involved in a lawsuit against the co-op to keep their pets. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
The tenants are receiving help from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times