Service animals and companion animals are the topic of our discussion today, because you need to know what you can and cannot do when you have a tenants with service dogs or emotional support animals (ESA).
First, some definitions. Service animals help people with disabilities. For example, a guide dog will help a person who is blind. Companion animals offer emotional support for people suffering from issues like anxiety and depression.
Fair Housing Laws and Service/Companion Animals
The Fair Housing Act is a federal law recognizing the importance of service and companion animals. It does two important things; it prevents landlords from discriminating against people with disabilities, and it requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations for people who have disabilities.
Not all landlords are required to follow the Fair Housing Act. Small landlords who own fewer than four rental units and don’t use a broker or a rental agent are exempt.
What are Reasonable Accommodations?
A reasonable accommodation is a change in rules or services that allows someone with a disability to enjoy their home like anyone else. Examples of reasonable accommodations include:
- Allowing tenants to install a wheelchair ramp to their apartment.
- Providing a reserved parking space for someone with a disability.
- Allowing blind tenants to have service dogs, even if pets aren’t allowed.
If a tenant’s handicap causes more than one daily life function to be limited, it’s possible that the tenant will need more than one service animal. For example, a resident may have an emotional support animal to help with anxiety and a guide dog to help with sight. It’s unlikely to be a reasonable accommodation when more than one animal is used to help with the same disability.
Verifying Information with Medical Professionals
You can verify certain information with a medical professional. Landlords are permitted to verify that the service animal has a connection to the tenant’s disability. You can ask how long the animal will be necessary, and confirm that the tenant meets the definition of disabled as defined by the Fair Housing Act. You can also require that documentation comes from the medical professional who is actively treating the tenant.
If the medical professional who signed the accommodation request will not speak with you, provide your applicant or tenant with a no-decision letter.
Service Dogs and Emotional Support Animals (ESA): What you cannot do
You cannot restrict the breed, size, or weight of an assistance animal. The only exception is wild animals. You cannot increase rent or charge a pet deposit for companion and service animals. However, tenants are responsible for damages to the property, and the landlord can evict a tenant if there are damages or the animal bothers other tenants or the resident doesn’t clean up after the animal.
Remember that you’re not permitted to ask for documentation showing the tenant’s disability if that disability is readily apparent.
This can be a complicated area for many landlords. If you need any help or have any questions, please contact us at Miller & Company.