Understanding Service Animal Policies Can Save Landlords from Costly Fines

Dated: April 19 2023

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Understanding Service Animal Policies Can Save Landlords from Costly Fines

Being a landlord or in property management brings a host of federal fair housing policies & laws one must follow. In 2018, a US federal court fined the owner of an Oklahoma mobile home park $50,000 for a violation of the Fair Housing Act regarding service animals.

As of January 2020, nearly 60% of all complaints to the Fair Housing Administration were regarding disability accommodation requests, and those regarding service animals were significantly increasing. Disability violations can be costly, and may affect not only large property management companies, but also individual landlords owning as few as four rental properties.

With service animals & emotional support animals becoming more and more common, it’s worth taking a moment to understand federal policies that can often come into costly conflict with housing providers’ pet policies.

The US Department of Housing & Urban Development provides a 19-page document for assessing a tenant’s request for an animal under the Fair Housing Act. We’ll boil down the policy to the main bullet points, but all housing providers should review the full document here.

Which Landlords/Property Managers are Subject to Service Animal Fair Housing Policies?

Per the DOJ Fair Housing Act Sec. 803. [42 U.S.C. 3603] 1.(b).1.(1), Housing providers (landlords, property managers, etc.) holding 4 or more properties for rent are subject to Fair Housing Act policies.

What Kinds of Animals Are Housing Providers Required to Accommodate?

Service/assistance/support animals should not be considered as “pets”, therefore, pet rules regarding size, breed, fees/deposits, etc. do not apply to service animals.

Dogs are the most common animal, and also hold the distinction of being the only animal considered a service animal, i.e., animals specifically trained to do tasks & services for a disabled individual.

Assistance animals, on the other hand, may be a variety of other potential animals. Assistance animals may provide emotional support, perform tasks that a dog cannot do (such as a monkey getting a bottle of water from the refrigerator, unscrewing the cap, and placing a straw), or may be used for service when a dog can’t be used (such as for allergy reasons).

Accommodation should be granted for assistance animals commonly kept in households such as dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, hamsters, fish, and turtles. For unique assistance animals such as reptiles (other than turtles), barnyard animals, monkeys, etc., the burden is placed upon the tenant to demonstrate need for the animal (e.g., documentation from a personal healthcare provider).

However, if a specific service animal poses a direct threat to others that cannot be eliminated or reduced (e.g., by keeping the animal in a secure enclosure), or would result in substantial property damage of others, the provider may have the ability to refuse the request in this case.

Note that because pet rules do not apply to service animals, housing providers may not charge a fee or deposit for any type of assistance animal. However, a provider may charge a tenant for damage caused by service/assistance animals.

How Many Service Animals Can a Tenant Have?

Some individuals may require more than one service animal (or combination of service AND support animal), or two people residing together may have need of their own individual service animals. HUD does not make a distinction regarding the number of animals, and HUD’s guidance should still be followed regarding multiple animal accommodation requests.

How Do I Determine Who Really Needs a Service or Support Animal?

If it is readily apparent that a service dog is observed (1) guiding someone who is blind or with low vision, (2) pulling a wheelchair, or (3) providing balance or stability to someone with a mobility disability, then no further questions should be asked, and accommodations should be made for the service animal.

If it’s not readily apparent that a service dog is observed as above, then a housing provider may ask two questions: (1) “Is the animal required because of a disability?”, and (2) “What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?” Providers should not ask about the nature of a person’s disability, nor request documentation.

When it’s not readily apparent/observable that a tenant has a disability, such as intellectual impairments (autism), neurological (stroke, Parkinson’s etc.), mental illness, or other diseases that affect major life activities or bodily functions, then a housing provider may request information regarding the disability and the need for the animal.

There are various services on the internet that will provide certificates and documentation for assistance animals to those who participate in an interview and pay a fee, but HUD does not find those outlets sufficient to establish proof of a non-observable disability. In cases of non-observable disabilities, HUD recommends that the most reliable form of documentation is a note from the tenant’s health-provider who knows them personally.

How Should I Handle Requests for Service Animals?

Residents may make accommodation requests either orally or written, and they may be made at any time—before or after after acquiring the animal, and anytime during tenancy, including after the provider seeks termination of lease/residency. Providers may not charge a fee for processing requests. NOTE: It’s always a good idea for BOTH sides to keep documentation of requests in case of any disputes.

Healthcare professionals providing documentation should provide (1) the patient’s name, (2) whether the health care professional has a professional relationship with the patient/client involving their disability, and (3) the type of animal for which accommodation is sought. Information regarding the individual’s disability and/or health conditions cannot be shared.

It should be noted that HUD states that addiction to illegal controlled substances does not qualify as a disability.

Furthermore, HUD recommends that healthcare professionals also provide (1) whether the patient has a physical or mental impairment, (2) whether the impairment limits a major life activity or bodily function, and (3) whether the patient needs the animal because it does work, performs a task due to a disability, provides therapeutic emotional support to alleviate a symptom of the disability, etc. and is not merely a pet.

Finally, if the animal is not commonly kept in households, healthcare professionals should also include (1) the date of the last consultation with the patient, (2) unique circumstances justifying the need for the particular, unique animal (such as previously owned by the individual), and (3) whether the professional has reliable information about the specific animal or whether they specifically recommended this type of animal.

Healthcare professionals should sign & date their documentation, and include contact & licensing information.

In Summary

Fair Housing and disabilities is a delicate and legally-fraught subject. Our information here isn’t legal advice, but hopefully incites our real estate clients to research this topic in further detail in order to protect both your assets AND your tenants. If you’re an investor with multiple properties either looking to liquidate OR expand, let your experienced Flotilla Partner know!

© 2023 Flotilla Holdings, Inc.

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Jennifer Arsenault

Jennifer Arsenault is a renowned figure in the real estate industry, celebrated for her exceptional skills as a public speaker, brokerage consultant, and real estate instructor. With an unwavering ded....

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