A lot of the landlords we talk to would prefer to keep their rental units free of pets. Sometimes they have language in their lease agreements and marketing materials that identify their property as not open to pets. Or, they allow pets but place restrictions on what kind of animals a tenant may have.
However, service animals are not pets. According to federal fair housing laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are not considered pets, and are instead considered to be legal accommodations that landlords must make in order to stay compliant with the law.
What is a Service Animal?
The requirement that landlords allow service animals is not without controversy, especially since the definition of service animals now includes companion and emotional support animals used by individuals with psychological needs.
A service animal is trained to provide assistance to someone with a disability. For example, there are guide dogs for people with visual impairments. But the line between pet and service animal has become increasingly blurry in recent years, and some tenants have tried to claim exotic animals like peacocks as service animals. This confusion can lead to fair housing lawsuits when landlords and tenants disagree on what legally qualifies as a service animal.
Meeting the HUD Definition of Service Animals
It doesn’t matter whether a service animal assists tenants with physical disabilities or offers emotional support. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) makes no distinction between these categories. There isn’t even a requirement that service or support animals have documented training. The only requirement is that the tenant can provide verification of a disability and a disability-related need for a service animal. This might be a letter from a doctor or healthcare provider.
Landlords are not permitted to deny otherwise qualified tenants from their properties if the tenant has a service animal. You are also not permitted to place breed restrictions on service animals or charge for pet fees, pet deposits, or pet rent.
Protecting Your Rental Property
You still have the right to protect your property. You cannot charge additional pet deposits, but if the tenant moves out and you find that the service animal caused damage to the property, you can charge the security deposit.
You can also request verification of a tenant’s disability and ask whether the service animal is needed as a result of their disability.
Also, while federal fair housing guidelines allow tenants to request reasonable accommodations, there are valid reasons for a landlord to deny such requests. A few reasons that may hold up in court include:
- Modifying the property to allow a tenant and animal would place an undue financial or administrative burden on the landlord.
- The animal is a direct threat to the health and safety of others.
- The animal would cause substantial damage to the property of others.
This is an area that’s still being worked out in a lot of courts. We recommend that you are careful about complying with fair housing and HUD guidelines. It can be an overwhelming task, but you don’t want to expose yourself to fair housing claims and potential lawsuits.
We’d be happy to help you navigate the service animal requirements. If you have any questions or need help, please contact us at McCaw Property Management.