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, assistance animals or an emotional support animal are not considered pets. According to federal fair housing laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act, assistance 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 Are Emotional Support Animals or Service Animals?
The requirement that each landlord allows a emotional support animal is not without controversy, especially since the definition of assistance animals now includes companion and emotional support animals used by individuals with psychological needs. This is a protected class under the Fair Housing Act.
A person with a service dog is not necessarily considered a pet owner under the Federal Fair Housing Act, as this is not a pet. It would be unlawful to charge a pet deposit for residents with service dogs.
An assistance animal provides services their person that can support their physical or mental health. These services allow the animal to be protected under the FHA.
A emotional support animal is trained to provide assistance to someone with a disability. For example, there are service dogs for people with visual impairments. But the line between pet and service dogs or emotional support assistant has become increasingly blurry in recent years, and some residents have tried to claim exotic animals or pets like peacocks as assistance animals.
This confusion can lead to fair housing lawsuits when landlords and pet owners disagree on what legally qualifies as a emotional support assistant animal.
Meeting the HUD Definition of an Assistant Animal
It doesn’t matter whether an animal assists residents 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. A landlord is also not permitted to place breed restrictions on assistance animals/ emotional support animals or charge for pet fees, pet deposits, or pet rent.
Protecting Your Rental Property
As a landlord, you still have the right to protect your property. A landlord cannot charge additional pet deposits, but if the tenant moves out and you find that the animal caused damage to the property, you can charge the security deposit. As a landlord, you must ensure you are complying with the Fair Housing Act.
A landlord can also request verification of a tenant’s disability and ask whether the animal is needed as a result of their disability.
Also, while federal fair housing guidelines allow residents 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.