landlords and service animals

Rental property owners are entitled to create their own pet policies, but what happens when a tenant comes to you requesting that you change your policy to accommodate their service animal?  

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of ambiguity regarding a landlord’s responsibility for accommodating service animals on their rental property.  In order to stay on top of this situation, landlords and property managers need to get educated on federal, state, and local laws.

Rather than face claims of discriminatory behavior, you will benefit from learning about the different types of assistance animals and what conditions make it possible for a tenant to require you rent to him and his animal.

Simply put, you have to allow service animals in your rental property if the tenant or applicant qualifies for reasonable accommodation and if they have a verifiable need for an assistance animal.

Here are the basic guidelines for landlords and property managers, as outlined by The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in regards to service animals at rental properties.

  • Service animals are not considered pets, therefore a housing providers “pet policy” does not apply to service animals.
  • Service animals are allowed wherever a person may go, including restricted animal areas like food establishments
  • Landlords cannot collect a pet deposit or charge a pet fee to persons with a service animal (since they are not technically considered pets)
  • Landlords cannot enforce weight limits or breed restrictions for service animals
  • Landlords can require written verification from the tenant’s health care provider that they are disabled but cannot ask for any specifics about the disability
  • Landlords can require written verification from the tenant’s health care provider that the service animal is medically necessary
  • Landlords can write warnings or even evict a tenant with an assistance animal is disturbing others, posing a threat to others or causing considerable damage to the property.
  • Landlords can charge a tenant for any property damage an assistance animals causes on the property.
  • Landlords can request copies of the animal’s health records to prove the animal is in good health, parasite-free and immunized/vaccinated.

Tenant requests for assistance animals are legally enforceable if the renter qualifies for reasonable accommodation. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provide further clarification on service animals and assistance animals to help housing providers understand their responsibility when it comes to reasonable accommodation.

Legal Protections for Tenants with Assistance Animals

If a housing provider prohibits pets on the property, a tenant may request reasonable accommodations in order for an assistance animal to live there.  Reasonable accommodation is when a tenant asks a landlord to change an existing rule or policy to have an equal opportunity to enjoy the unit and property.

According to the Fair Housing Act(FHA) and the American Disabilities Ac (ADA)t, a tenant may qualify for reasonable accommodations for disabilities if the following conditions are met:

  1. Have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (such as walking, seeing, working, cleaning, dressing, and so forth)
  2. Have a history of such impairments
  3. Be regarded as having such impairments

The situation is complicated by the fact that a landlord is limited by the amount of information he can ask an applicant or tenant about any disabilities.  Numerous laws have been enacted to protect the privacy of individuals with disabilities and to ensure they receive fair housing opportunities.

Lawmakers have created further protections of individuals with disabilities by clarifying that people with disabilities may request reasonable accommodations for any assistance animals, including emotional support animals.

HUD gives further guidance to housing providers about how to go about determining the validity of reasonable accommodation for assistance animals.  You can find a complete version of these rules here.

Types of Assistance Animals

Landlords may find themselves in situations where they need to provide reasonable accommodation for assistance animals.  Typically, you will find yourself dealing with 2 types of assistance animals – service animals and companion animals.

Service Animals

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a true service animal is a dog trained to provide assistance to the owner who has a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.

The ADA gives the following examples of a service animal:

  1. A person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him when his blood sugar is low.
  2. A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind her to take her medication.
  3. A person who has epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to detect the onset of a seizure and then help the person remain safe during the seizure.

The key factor that differentiates a service animal over a pet is training and certification. Service animals are carefully trained by experts to do their tasks and are subsequently licensed. A service animal’s owner will possess identification papers and the animal will usually wear some kind of identification collar or harness (but not always). Service animals are generally well trained, well behaved, and cause minimal damage.

Companion Animals

Companion animals, emotional support animals (ESA), therapy animals are terms used to describe animals that provide comfort just by being with a person.  Studies have shown that people disabled with conditions like anxiety, depression, autism or post-traumatic stress can alleviate symptoms with an emotional support animal. Companion animals do not need to go through special training and an individual can qualify for an emotional support animal with a doctor’s approval.

Because companion animals or ESA have not been trained to perform a specific task or job, they do not qualify as service animals under the ADA. The ADA does not give individuals with companion animals the same opportunities as service animals to bring the animal with them to public places where pets are prohibited.

Landlords’ Responsibility to Service Animals and Companion Animals

Although the ADA treats companion animals differently than service animals, the Federal Fair Housing laws treat them similarly.  Companion animals do qualify for reasonable accommodations under the Fair Housing Act and enforced by HUD.

If the conditions outlined above are met, where an individual has a verified need for an assistance animal or a companion animal, the landlord or property manager must provide a reasonable accommodation and allow the animal on the property.

In some states, a companion animal is only allowed in the rental unit and not in community spaces of the property, like the pool area or recreation room.

As always, the rules vary by state and you should find an attorney to help you understand your state’s specific laws regarding your responsibilities and rights for providing reasonable accommodation to assistance animals.

This article was originally posted in May 2016.