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Housing Rights and Your Service or Emotional Support Animal

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If a person is physically impaired (disabled) and has individually trained service dog to perform a major life task that the person has trouble performing for him or herself (or an emotional support animal prescribed by a licensed mental health professional), the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires the landlord/property manager to make a reasonable accommodation to their policies and allow the tenant to have an emotional support animal. This includes species, breed, and weight policies.

That means if they have a “cats only” policy, they must accept your service dog. If they have a policy that allows dogs weighing no more than 30 lbs. and your emotional support animal (ESA) weighs 75 lbs., they must make a change in the rules to accommodate you. If they accept all dogs, except pit bulls, and you have a pit bull, they must allow your pit bull to reside with you.

Property managers/landlords are NOT required to make a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act for ESAs or Service Animals in these cases:

  • Buildings with 4 or less units where the landlord occupies one of the units
  • Single family housing sold or rented without a real estate broker
  • Hotels and Motels are not considered dwellings under the FHA but are considered places of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Private Clubs

Documentation Required For Emotional Support Animals
The one requirement for a person to legally qualify for an emotional support animal (ESA) is that the person has a letter from a licensed mental health professional (therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist -NOT the family doctor) on his/her letterhead that states the person is under his/her care, is emotionally or psychiatrically disabled, and prescribes for the person an emotional support animal. Without this letter, if the person presents an animal as an ESA, he/she is in violation of federal law; an offense punishable by fine and imprisonment, if convicted.

If you have no therapist or your therapist is unwilling to write a letter of prescription for an ESA, we recommend Chilhowee Psychological service, who offers a disability assessment designed to determine your eligibility. If you meet the disabled criteria based on their assessment, then they also send that RX letter to you, written by a licensed therapist.

Verification May Be Required By Property Managers
These laws allows a property manager to accept a letter from the tenant’s licensed mental health professional (LMHP) for an ESA, but they may also require a verification form to be completed by a physician or LMHP, confirming the tenant’s physical/emotional/psychiatric disability. Despite how much the property manager/landlord does NOT want your service dog or emotional support animal, federal law requires him/her to make a reasonable accommodation in the rules. If they do not, they are discriminating against a disabled person and are in violation of federal law. Here is a link to a government document (one of many) that addresses this issue. See the 3rd page, second column):

Examples and Specific Rules
So how do Fair Housing laws apply to real life situations? Here are some examples:

John has been diagnosed with severe depression and is disabled as defined by the Fair Housing Act. His doctor prescribes John a dog to help alleviate some of his symptoms. John asks his landlord if he can have a dog as a reasonable accommodation for his disability. His landlord says yes, but tells John he’ll need to pay a $250 pet deposit and must provide proof that the animal is trained.

Question: Did John’s landlord correctly handle John’s request under the Fair Housing Act? What if John wanted a cat or a ferret instead?

Answer: No, John’s landlord did not handle his request correctly. The landlord cannot charge John a pet deposit for his animal because it is not a pet, but rather emotional support animal required for his emotional impairment. Further, the landlord cannot ask for proof that the animal is trained. Lastly, emotional support animals do not have to be just dogs; they can also be other animals, such as cats or ferrets (and many other species).

Landlords cannot:

  • Ask a tenant to pay a deposit, fee, or surcharge in exchange for having a service or emotional support animal, evenif they require such a practice from owners who wish to obtain pets in their dwelling.
  • Require that an emotional support animal have any specific training
  • Require the emotional support animal to wear or carry any special collar, harness, vest, emblem, or other means of identifying it as such.
  • Inquire about the extent of the disability, or ask for detailed medical records for the individual requesting the service or emotional support animal.
  • Refuse to accommodate you and your animal because their insurance policy won’t allow a species, breed, or weight. They are still subject to the law.
  • A person with a disability may, however, be charged for damages caused to the premises by their emotional support or service animal.
  • A disabled person who does not properly manage his/her unruly, destructive, aggressive, or disturbance causing animal can be evicted.

What To Do When a Property Manager Refuses To Comply
Failure to accommodate a physically or emotionally impaired person is a violation of federal law and can be successfully sued AND the landlord/property manager financially penalized by the U.S. Justice Dept. because it is considered discrimination against a disabled person. Something the government takes seriously.

  1. Clients are encouraged to make sure the landlord or property manager are clearly aware of the law and consequences to help them avoid prosecution and punitive damages. Most are in violation simply because they do not know the law. The U.S. Justice Dept. does not consider the property manager’s lack of awareness when they prosecute them, however.
  2. A client can report the landlord/property manager to the U.S. Justice Dept. and file a complaint for discrimination.
  3. A client may sue the landlord/property manager for discrimination.

You’ll need to be prepared to reinforce your position and case with supplemental documentation from a physician or mental health professional that verifies your need for the animal.

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