Emotional support animals (also known as companion animals and therapy animals) are often a hot button issue for landlords and renters. Awareness of mental health challenges and care are increasing. As a result, landlords are receiving a greater number of reasonable accommodation requests as people learn about the care options that work best for them.
Unfortunately, it also means that some looking to "game the system" may try to falsely use a reasonable accommodation request to get around a landlord's pet policy.
HUD recently issued new guidance around assistance animals. Learn more here.
How can a landlord provide great service to those who need a companion animal, while also dealing with those abusing the law? Let's take a practical look at the law.
A companion animal is NOT a pet. It is an animal that provides emotional support to help with one or more effects of a person's disability. This means that pet deposits, rent, or fees do not apply to the therapy animal.
When a renter makes a reasonable accommodation request, the landlord must evaluate the request using the following criteria:
- Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability? (i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
- Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person's existing disability?
If the answer is "yes" to both questions, the landlord must make the reasonable accommodation and allow the emotional support animal.
BUT WAIT! How is a landlord allowed to get answers to those two questions?
If the disability or disability-related need is not obvious(e.g. someone in a wheelchair or blind with a seeing eye dog), the landlord may ask individuals to submit reliable documentation of a disability and their disability-related need for the emotional support animal.
For example, the landlord may ask the renter requesting the reasonable accommodation to provide documentation from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professional.
A landlord may NOT ask the renter to provide access to medical records or medical providers. The landlord may also not ask for detailed or extensive information or documentation of a person's physical or mental impairments.
When can a landlord deny the reasonable accommodation request for the emotional support animal?
A landlord can deny the request if the specific animal in question poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation. One can also deny the request if the animal would cause substantial physical damage to the property of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation.
Breed, size, and weight limits do not apply to companion animals. This means that you can't deny a reasonable accommodation request just because it is a pit bull, rottweiler, or other breed that carriers a reputation. Instead, you have to evaluate each animal individually to determine whether or not it poses an excessive risk to others and/or their property.
The key for landlords is to follow a consistent process each time a renter requests a reasonable accommodation. Follow the guidelines mentioned above, and evaluate each request on a case-by-case basis! And remember, ALWAYS document each request and the justification behind your decision.
Short Answers to a Few Common Questions
Q. - Why does someone need an emotional support animal?
A. - Emotional support animals provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias.
Q. - Does a companion animal have to be trained or certified?
A. - No. Special training or certification is not needed.
Q. - Does a companion animal have to wear a vest?
A. - No.
Q. - We don't allow pets. What am I supposed to tell other renters who ask why someone else has a "pet" (that is actually an emotional support animal)?
A. - Explain that you do not speak about the specific situations of other residents. Then, offer to share your property's policies related to pets and reasonable accommodation request process. Have the policies on your website or have paper copies ready to share!
Q. - What if someone requests a companion animal that is a cat, bird, or something other than a dog?
A. - This is OK. Dogs are the most common type of emotional support animal. However, cats, birds, and others may serve as a companion animal.
Q. - Is a renter required to put a reasonable accommodation request in writing?
A. - No. However, it is recommended that landlords document the reasonable accommodation request in writing and keep a copy on file. In other words, the renter doesn't have to request it in writing, but a landlord should keep a written record of the request, and the justification behind ultimately allowing or denying the request.
Q. - I get a number of reasonable accommodation requests for emotional support animals that I believe are fraudulent. It takes up a lot of time. What can I do?
A. - That is a good, tough question. Some landlords have determined that it is easier to allow pets with a solid pet policy (e.g. Pet deposit, breed restrictions, etc). This way renters without a disability that want pets can have them without having to "game the system," and renters with a disability can still request a reasonable accommodation if needed to waive the pet deposit, breed restrictions, and other costs associated with the pet policy.