LAKE PLACID - The Franklin County Community Housing Council is taking another look at a no-pets policy that caused alarm among some tenants at the West Valley apartment complex.
The council is now working with the state attorney general's Plattsburgh office on a new policy, according to Director Eileen Gillen.
In a May 7 notice sent to tenants, Gillen wrote that there had been "much discussion regarding the No Pet Policy." She states that all animals, including cats, dogs, ferrets and others, must be removed from the premises immediately, without any exceptions.
The letter goes on to state that only certified service animals that have "completed the service training course and is in possession of actual services licenses will be considered.
"A (doctor's note) for an animal that provides companionship is not acceptable," the letter reads. "All non certified animals must be removed by May 31, 2012. Tenants who are in possession of animals after June 1, 2012, will be evicted."
The housing council took over the West Valley complex, off of Wesvalley Road in Lake Placid, on May 1. It was formerly run by ComLinks. Gillen told the Enterprise the state asked her agency to bring the property, which includes a homeless project and a low-income affordable housing project, into compliance.
"One of the issues with putting them back into compliance is the pet policy issue," Gillen said.
Gillen said "people went up in arms" after the notice was sent out. She said her agency was simply trying to follow through on rules that were already in place.
A friend of a tenant, who asked not to be named in order to protect the privacy of his friend, said he took the tenants' concerns to Disability Advocates Inc. of Albany and the Plattsburgh attorney general's office.
Nina Loewenstein, senior staff attorney with Disability Advocates, wrote to Gillen on May 23 in response to the no pet policy. She said the policy was "overly restrictive and would therefore violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act." Loewenstein wrote that Department of Justice regulations prohibit a public entity from asking for proof that the animal has been "certified, trained or licensed as a service animal.
"Thus, the animal may be trained by its owner to perform the tasks," she wrote.
Loewenstein told the Enterprise the FHA in itself would provide sufficient guidelines for the housing council to determine whether a tenant needs a service animal or not. She said that under the FHA, a disabled person isn't described simply as someone who is blind, deaf or physically disabled.
"It's broader, and it includes emotional-support animals which assist folks with psychiatric issues," Loewenstein said. "There, you often would have a mental health clinician who knows the person with the disability providing the explanation for why it's necessary."
She said tenants at the West Valley apartments "were very distraught" over the no-pet policy.
"This was extremely frightening to folks who are dependent on their animals," Loewenstein said.
Michaels would not confirm or deny whether his office was involved in any talks with the housing council over its no-pet policy. A phone message left with a West Valley resident has a caller who identifies himself as Michaels, and who sounds like Michaels, telling the individual the policy had been discarded "and they will work with our office to devise one that complies with the law, because theirs does not."
In a phone interview, Michaels said that, generally speaking, landlords - unless there is a local law in affect - can always prohibit pets. But he stressed that a service animal is not the same as a pet.
In addition to the protections provided to disabled tenants under the FHA, Michaels said New York state has its own set of parallel laws to protect those individuals.
Michaels said there can be differences between what is required of a private landlord and a public housing authority. He said subsidized housing provides more rights to the disabled than non-subsidized housing.
Michaels said his office has, in the past, brought successful legal action against a Plattsburgh hotel that discriminated against people with service animals. His office has also done compliance testing with businesses.
"In general, we've found that most businesses are aware of the rights of the disabled," Michael said, "but when and if we find someone who does not respect those, we usually are able to resolve the matter informally. If not, we're prepared to take legal action."
He said he encourages people who think they've found a violation to contact his office.
"We've had situations where disabled persons have been approached by owners of various establishments and asked, 'Well gee, what's your disability? Can you show me a doctor's note?'" Michaels said. "That's against the law.
"If a person has an animal, someone in a restaurant, theater or hotel can ask that person legally, 'Are you disabled, and is this service animal assisting you with your disability?' If the answers to those are 'yes,' end of conversation."
Gillen said at this point her agency is trying to clarify which tenants require a service animal, and which ones simply have pets. She noted that as of Wednesday, no one had been evicted or asked to leave because of a service animal.
Loewenstein said she was happy to hear the housing council was reviewing its policy.
"I'd be happy to review a new draft of the policy," she said.
Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.