Understanding Fair Housing Law: Service Animals

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The most basic understanding you should have of the Fair Housing Law as a landlord is this:

You cannot discriminate against potential and existing tenants on the basis of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, religion, familial status, or disability.

That sounds simple but as you begin to apply it to your properties, you’ll find it can quickly become complicated. In our series on Fair Housing Law, we’ll look at different elements that you need to be aware of as a landlord.

When you rent property, you cannot discriminate against tenants who have a disability. You are required to make reasonable accommodations for them without requiring that they pay higher deposits or rent. One of the common needs of a person with disabilities is an assistance animal.

Service Animals vs. Assistance Animals

Assistance animals are often referred to as service animals, but depending on the specific law, they are two different things. There are multiple laws that deal with the idea of service animals. They’re all slightly different, and you can’t just follow one. As a landlord, the Fair Housing law is most important, though.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which discusses, in part, the use of service animals specifically defines these animals as a dog that has been trained to do specific tasks or work for and with a person with a disability. As a landlord, you cannot follow such a narrow definition. The Fair Housing Act allows reasonable accommodations for assistance animals. These animals do not have to be dogs and they don’t always have to be specially trained.

Assistance animals perform very specific functions for people with disabilities. Some of those things include (but are not limited to):

● Guiding people who are blind or have low vision
● Alerting people who are deaf or have hearing problems
● Providing protection or rescue assistance
● Pulling wheelchairs
● Fetching items
● Alerting people to impending seizures
● Providing emotional support

While you may be able to see someone’s wheelchair or know someone is deaf, you can’t tell by looking at people if they have PTSD or are prone to seizures.

Pet Policies and Assistance Animals

The most important thing to understand as a landlord working with a tenant with disabilities is that assistance animals are not pets. You cannot treat them the same way. No pet deposit can be required, and you can’t deny a tenant the ability to rent your property because you have a “no pet” policy.

Renting to a tenant who needs an assistance animal when you don’t normally allow pets is considered a reasonable accommodation. In order to determine if this tenant’s request is a reasonable accommodation, ask yourself two questions:

1. Does this person have a disability, either a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
2. Does this person have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? Does this animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or service for a person with a physical disability? Does this animal provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability?

Some disabilities will be obvious – a blind person with a seeing eye dog, a person in a wheelchair, etc. Some disabilities won’t be visible to the eye. If you cannot tell by looking at someone why they need their assistance animal, you can request documentation of their disability or their need for an assistance animal. You cannot ask for medical records.

Exceptions to Allowing Assistance Animals

Only in very specific circumstances can an assistance animal be denied to a tenant. If you think you have an exception to the accommodation, it would be best to speak with an attorney or someone well-versed in fair housing law before refusing the tenant.

The exceptions are:

● The specific animal poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others that can’t be reduced through other accommodations.
● The specifical animal would cause physical damage to the property of others.

These exceptions must be based on an individual assessment of the animal and the people and property involved. Objectionable facts are required, not fears based on breed or animal type or what “might” or “could” happen.

As a landlord you have a responsibility to your property and your business. But, when you work with the public, especially in housing, you also have a responsibility to deal with everyone fairly, including people with disabilities. Not allowing pets is your right. Not allowing a needed assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation could be illegal.

If you don’t want keep up with all of the legal requirements as a landlord, hire a property management company to do it for you. At ERA American Real Estate, we stay on top of all laws and regulations for landlords and tenants. We know how to keep you legal and put good tenants in your properties.

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