Steve Vincent lives in a pet-free condo in Miami Beach. The bylaws clearly say so. No one who purchases a unit there can credibly claim otherwise. • Yet the waterfront Bay Garden Manor Condominium high-rise 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 condo associations in Miami-Dade County.
Pet-friendly websites also sell emotional support credentials of sometimes dubious value.
"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."
Emotional support dogs are not to be confused with service dogs. The former are covered by the Fair Housing Act, while the latter are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Marcela Alvarez, 45, lived in Bay Garden Manor for 14 years with her husband until they divorced in 2012. Unaccustomed to living by herself, she felt emotionally isolated.
Her chiropractor suggested she get a pet, so she got Pelusa, now a 1-year-old Jack Russell.
But she needed the letter, so she went to the Miami Beach Community Health Center and talked to Dr. Marco Fiore, an endocrinologist.
"When she told me that story, I told her she could see a psychologist, but she said, 'No, all I need is a letter,' " Fiore said. "I thought, 'Oh, why not? If you think that's important to you, then that's fine with me.' I grew up with dogs, so for me it was just common sense."
Alvarez walked out the clinic with a letter saying, "She may benefit to have a dog for companionship." That was enough for her to bring Pelusa into the building.
The loosey-goosey implementation of the rules is no small deal to Steve 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, a lawyer with 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."
He recently conducted a seminar about how to deal with the requests for emotional support animals during the South Florida Condo & HOA Expo. About 50 property managers attended his lecture. He explained what type of questions they can ask, what documentation is needed to verify legitimacy, and how they can protect themselves if they have to grant an accommodation.
Fun Paw Care trains emotional support animals as well as service dogs. Every week, owner Russell Hartstein receives calls from people asking him to train their dogs or provide some type of certification.
"When I start digging a little deeper, I usually find out that they are not disabled at all," Hartstein said of those who come to him.
"Eight out of 10 times, it comes down to someone looking just to buy pets to live in these buildings with no-pet rules or just to bring in the airplanes inappropriately. Of course we don't serve these clients," he said.
Dog trainer Rose Lesniak has seen the same thing play out. She constantly receives calls, and said she can tell right away if a person doesn't have a real emotional need.
"They have no clue what they are doing," she said. "All they want is a letter from me saying their dog is certified, and I tell them that's not the way it works."
When pet owners can't find help with trainers or doctors, the next step is sometimes online.
Eager to fill in the void are websites like freemypaws.com, nsarco.com and registermyserviceanimal.com, which helpfully notes: "These animals are for people with mild anxiety or depression. … Emotional support animals have a right to housing and can travel on an airline for free with a note from a licensed mental health provider or doctor." They sell service animal ID cards, certification cards, tags and patches for less than $100. Buyers need only check the boxes confirming they have a condition and that their animal is trained.
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.
Maida Genser, 70, founder and president of the group, has two cats, Priya and Spike, that she says help her go to sleep. She could not imagine living without them.
"Emotional support animals provide the support just by being there," she said. "If you hold a purring cat or pet a dog or watch your dog rolling over, wagging his tail, that can help someone emotionally.
"There's no way your pet in your apartment is going to bother somebody else."
Tell that to Vincent, the kidney transplant patient who finds it increasingly more difficult to stay clear of animal fur.
"I'm all for everybody being happy and living a healthy life," he said, "but you can't do that at other people's expense."