Staying in compliance for support animal accommodations
In the housing industry, there have been a wave of prospective tenants requiring or requesting accommodations for their pets based on emotional support or companionship. This trend has been caught up as a loophole for individuals to get of paying pet fees, pet deposits, and allowing pets onto a property where they are prohibited. There are numerous places online that allow individuals to easily print off unofficial paperwork to try and pass as proper identification of a service or support animal. Many individuals will have official documentation, but it is important to know how to ensure the paperwork is valid proof to receive this accommodation.
An emotional support animal, or simply “support animal”, is determined to provide benefits to an individual with a disability by a licensed professional. Support animals can come in on all shapes and sizes, but are often times dogs or cats. Used by individuals with a range of psychiatric, intellectual, or physical disabilities, support animals provide emotional stability and have a reputation of truly benefiting those that are in need.
This is not to be confused with a service animal, which, by ADA, can only be a dog or miniature horse. A service animal is individually trained to do work or perform responsibilities for the benefit of an individual with a disability. The service animal is trained to recognize and respond to the person’s actions and environment. Service Animals are permitted in all areas of residence, common or community areas, and places of public accommodation within the housing complex, whether you are a resident, prospective or future resident, or guest.
In order to acquire or have on record that a pet is an emotional support animal, the owner must have a diagnosed and verifiable disability. In order to be protected by federal law, the individual must meet the definition of disability and have documentation provided by a physician or medical professional. This document must state that the emotional support animal provides a benefit to the individual due to their disability.
Those individuals that have a disability and have a support animal that have proper documentation are protected by The Fair Housing Act (FHA). The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, and disability [42 U.S.C. §3601-3619] According to the FHA, it is unlawful for an individual to refuse “to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” [42 U.S.C. §3602 (f)(3)(B)] “A reasonable accommodation is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with a disability . . .” [Joint Statement of HUD and DOJ on Reasonable Accommodations Under the Fair Housing Act (2008).]
As a property manager is it vital to be aware that exceptions to “No Pets” policies have been reviewed as a “reasonable accommodation” as long as the individual inquiring accommodations can show a link between the disability and the need for the support animal. Generally, landlords or property managers will not pursue or question a person’s disability, but are allowed to if a resident is requesting an accommodation or modification, applying for priority for persons with disabilities, applying for a housing program designated for persons with disabilities, or trying to qualify for an allotment that reduces rent because of a disability.
If a person is found to have proper documentation and evidence for their inquiry to have their emotional support animal in their residence, the landlord or property manager must waive any pet fees or per deposits. This does not include any damage caused by the tenant,they may be required to pay for any repair costs.
A property manager may deny a request for a service/assistance/emotional support animal if it:
- Poses an undue administrative burden
- Results in substantial physical damage to the property of others
- Poses a direct health threat or safety of others
- Fundamentally alters the nature of the provider’s operations
If a tenant believes their request is a reasonable accommodation and is denied by the property manager, they will be able to file a formal complaint to the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, and Legal Aid’s Fair Housing Project.
Many landlords or property managers will not fight the request, in fear of being reported or faced with legal action. Others are willing to take the risk and pursue legal action against those that appear to be abusing the fair housing protections in order to avoid pet deposits, feed, or no-pet policies.
Overall, it is important to ask a prospective tenant for proper evidence of the service the animal is providing. If the only service is companionship, with no medical services, the request for accommodations can be denied and fees will still be administered.
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