Pet owners, condo associations in dog fight

MIAMI — Steve Vincent lives in a pet-free condo in Miami Beach. Fla. The bylaws clearly say so. No one who purchases a unit there can credibly claim otherwise.

And yet the Bay Garden Manor Condominium on West Avenue has its share of dogs.

A loophole the size of an English sheepdog allows condo owners to keep pets, regardless of the association rules, if they can get them classified as "emotional support animals."

It can be as simple as convincing a physician, a psychiatrist, a social worker or mental health professional to sign a letter saying the animal provides needed emotional support.

"It's almost an epidemic here at the Beach," said George Zamora, a property manager for Regatta Real Estate Management, a company that manages 93 condominium associations in Miami-Dade County.

"It's highly suspect when people start asking whether or not they can have a pet," Zamora said, "and all of a sudden, they show up and say they need emotional support. If you legitimately have an issue, you don't ask."

Pet-friendly websites freely sell emotional support credentials., and are more than willing to help. They sell service animal ID cards, certification cards, tags and patches for less than $100. The buyer needs only to check the boxes confirming they have a condition and their animal is trained.

The loosy-goosy implementation of the rules is no small deal to Vincent. The 49-year-old recently had a kidney transplant and has been told that avoiding fur is a medical imperative.

"You come in the elevator and they let your dog sniff you up," he said.

Paul J. Milberg, an attorney for Katzman Garfinkel & Berger, said: "It's so easy now that everyone is hearing about it. I have board directors calling me all the time. There are people who dislike animals and move to a no-pet community, and now, all of a sudden here is this person with a dog out of the blue."

Emotional support dogs are not to be confused with service dogs, such as seeing-eye canines. The former are covered by the Fair Housing Act, while the latter are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

An organization called Citizens for Pets in Condos is lobbying for a bill that would allow a community to change its bylaws if 51 percent of unit owners voted to allow pets. Currently, a three-quarters vote is needed.

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