Housing Laws for Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals
Many Americans live with disabilities that affect essential activities in their lives. Service animals and emotional support animals can lighten the burdens imposed by these conditions. People with disabilities often cannot function physically or mentally without assistance from these specialized animals. However, landlords often impose certain policies that restrict or prohibit the presence of pets in rental units. Federal laws thus provide rights for service animals and emotional support animals who play essential roles in the lives of their owners.
Rights for Service Animals
Service animals are animals (usually dogs) that perform certain tasks for a person with a disability or medical condition. They undergo specific training that prepares them to perform their roles. Perhaps the most familiar example of a service animal is a guide dog who assists a blind individual. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that provides specific rights for service animals. Landlords must provide access to rental units for service animals, even if they have a no-pets policy. This is because a service animal is viewed under the law not as a pet but instead as medical equipment.
A landlord cannot charge pet fees for a service animal, and they cannot impose a pet deposit that may be imposed for pets of renters without disabilities. They cannot impose policies that limit renters to dogs of certain breeds or sizes. However, if a service animal harms another tenant or causes damage to the property, a landlord may ask the tenant to move out.
Rights for Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals are less specialized than service animals. Rather than assisting with specific tasks, they typically provide comfort and support for people with emotional or psychological rather than physical conditions. Emotional support animals may be dogs, but they can be other species as well, such as cats, rabbits, birds, fish, or any other type of small animal that is commonly kept in a home. The ADA does not cover emotional support animals, but the federal Fair Housing Act provides them with rights.
The Fair Housing Act requires most landlords to provide a reasonable accommodation to a tenant who has an emotional support animal, notwithstanding any no-pets policy or other restrictions on pets. This is because the law attempts to ensure that people with disabilities, including people with mental health conditions, have an equal opportunity to obtain and use housing. As with service animals, a landlord cannot charge pet fees for an emotional support animal, nor can they impose a pet deposit that they would impose for an ordinary pet. Also similarly to service animals, landlords cannot impose breed or weight restrictions that would apply to ordinary pets. However, they can require a tenant to provide documentation establishing that an animal serves as an emotional support animal.
Exceptions to Accommodations for Emotional Support Animals
A landlord does not need to provide a reasonable accommodation for an emotional support animal when:
The property is an owner-occupied building with four or fewer units
The property is a single-family home sold or rented by the owner without the use of an agent
The emotional support animal poses a risk to the health or safety of other people, or a risk of substantial damage to property (but this risk must be specific to the animal and cannot be based solely on assumptions about the animal’s breed)
Getting a Letter for an Emotional Support Animal
To trigger the requirement of a reasonable accommodation, a tenant must provide a landlord with a letter from a licensed health care professional. The letter must explain that the tenant suffers from a mental or emotional condition, and the emotional support animal plays a necessary role in alleviating an issue caused by the condition. The letter does not need to provide a diagnosis or describe the condition in extensive detail, or state that the animal has specific training related to the condition. Psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, doctors, physician assistants, licensed therapists or counselors, and even social workers can provide these letters. According to the US Department of Housing (HUD), the health care professional should sign and date the letter on their letterhead and provide their contact and license information.
After receiving the letter, a landlord sometimes will ask for additional information about the tenant’s situation. If the request is reasonable and not overly intrusive or onerous, a tenant may want to comply. However, a tenant should know that a landlord cannot ask to review their medical records or ask them to undergo a medical examination. A landlord is not entitled to ask a tenant for a certification for an emotional support animal, and they cannot require a tenant to register an emotional support animal. A landlord cannot demand that a health care professional complete a certain form, provide notarized statements, or provide information under penalty of perjury.
In general, a landlord must decide on the reasonable accommodation within 10 days of receiving the emotional support animal letter. They must interact with a tenant making this type of request in good faith. A tenant must receive a reasonable opportunity to provide information related to their condition or need for an emotional support animal.
Responding to a Failure to Accommodate an Emotional Support Animal
Not every landlord agrees to provide an accommodation for an emotional support animal without resistance. Some landlords do not know the law, while others may suspect tenants of abusing these rules to smuggle ordinary pets into the property. A tenant should make sure that the landlord knows about the law before taking formal action. They might ask an attorney to write a letter to the landlord that explains the law.
If the landlord still fails to cooperate, the tenant can file a complaint with the HUD Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. This federal agency responds to complaints of discrimination and may bring a charge against the landlord. A tenant whose request to live with an emotional support animal is unreasonably denied also may be able to sue the landlord for various types of damages, such as extra rent paid to another housing provider or emotional distress.