HUD is hoping to make it easier for landlords to comply with Fair Housing Rules by issuing new guidelines on assistance animals. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says there’s been a huge increase in the number of requests for emotional support animals, including many that are not legitimate. The agency says the new guidelines offer some clarification of the rules and step-by-step guidance for landlords.
These new guidelines are not law. They are meant to help interpret laws that allow a person with a disability to have an assistance animal where they live. There are two kinds of assistance animals — service dogs which are governed by the American Disabilities Act, and emotional support animals, which are governed by the Fair Housing Act.
Assistance Animals Are Not Pets
The new guidelines cover both, but the focus is on emotional support animals, because it’s a broad category which can be difficult to assess for landlords and easily abused by tenants. They also state unequivocally that assistance animals are “not pets.”
According to Megan Booth at the National Association of Realtors, “Assistance animals can be incredibly helpful to people with a disability. (1) But in recent years there has been a significant uptick in people abusing this part of the Fair Housing Act by trying to pass their pet off as an assistance animal.”
These guidelines are meant to help landlords determine whether a person has a disability that’s not obvious and someone who just wants to have a pet despite a no-pet policy or to avoid additional pet fees
HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement that he “recognized the necessity for further clarity regarding support animals to provide peace of mind to individuals with disabilities while also taking into account the concerns of housing providers.” (2)
Balancing the Needs of All Tenants
Landlords need to balance the needs of all their tenants. That may include people who want to live in a pet-free building or complex because they have severe allergies. And it’s gotten more difficult because there’s been a big increase in the number of people who claim to have service dogs or emotional support animals.
There has also been a big rise in complaints about landlords rejecting these animals, especially if the disability is not obvious. These guidelines attempt to clear up any confusion about tenant rights to have an assistance animal in a pet-free rental.
Service Dog Rules
There isn’t much of a dispute when it comes to service dogs, especially if the dog is obviously trained to help a person with a visible disability. If the disability isn’t so obvious, ADA rules apply. Under those rules, a housing provider may ask two questions:
1 – Is the animal required because of a disability?
2 – What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
Questions asking for details about an individual’s disability are not allowed. A disability is defined as something that is either physical or mental and impacts a major life activity. There is such a thing as a psychiatric service dog, but many people get help for their mental disabilities with emotional support animals.
Emotional Support Animals
That’s where people are pushing the envelope when it comes to the need for this kind of assistance. And, documentation supporting those claims has been easy to get on the internet. You can pay a few bucks to get a letter or certificate stating the need for an emotional support animal. That’s been confusing to landlords. The new guidelines state that housing providers have the right for more reliable documentation, such as a letter from a health care professional.
The National Multifamily Housing Council and the National Apartment Association say the new guidelines are a step in the right direction. They said in a joint statement, “The apartment industry strongly supports the rights of persons with disabilities to make reasonable accommodation requests so they may have equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” But they also say, “A lack of clarity in the law currently governing emotional support animals allows for abuse and imposes an unfair burden on property owners.”
Kinds of Animals Allowed
The new guidelines also clarify the kinds of animals that should be allowed. The list is based on animals that are commonly kept in households. Those animals include a dog, cat, small bird, rabbit, hamster, gerbil, other rodent, fish, turtle, or other small, domesticated animal. It says that barnyard animals, monkeys, kangaroos, and other animals that are not commonly kept in homes would be considered “unique.”
If an individual has a unique animal, the new guidelines say that landlords can require documentation from a health care professional stating why that particular animal is needed. For instance, a person may have a monkey because the monkey has been trained to use its hands to perform a task.
If the patient needs a common type of emotional support animal, documentation from a health care provider would include the patient’s name, the provider’s relationship with the patient, the type of animal the patient needs for support, whether the patient has a physical or mental disability, whether that disability limits a major life activity or bodily function, whether the patient needs the animal for a task or emotional support. Again, details on the nature of the disability do not have to be disclosed.
If the type of animal is “unique”, HUD says the letter should also include the date of the last consultation, any unique circumstances justifying the need for that particular animal, whether the provider has reliable information about this animal, and whether he or she recommended it.
The guidelines also include a lot of definitions and examples of the kinds assistance a support animal can provide. If a tenant gets an animal before he or she makes a request, HUD says that landlords can continue to enforce a no pets policy. It also suggests that once a request is made, that a response is given within 10 days.
(2) Forbes Article