Did you know that more than 65% of U.S. households own at least one pet? From dogs and cats to everything in between—animals truly become a part of your family. We know how important these furry, feathered, and scaly family members are to so many people. But, we also know the challenges they pose to property owners. One controversy that’s been gaining steam in recent years is identifying when assistance animals are actually providing legitimate assistance. This tumult is extremely widespread, affecting airlines, restaurants, and unsurprisingly, the residential housing industry.
The Legal Side of Assistance Animals
Assistance animals—either service animals or emotional support animals—are necessary for many individuals to live a more normal and functional life. There is, however, a gray area in identifying what is and isn’t an assistance animal. This confusion has caused quite a bit of trouble for the residential housing industry. Reasonable accommodation requests for assistance animals have spiked recently, creating a variety of issues for property owners.
What Kinds of Issues Can Arise?
According to Fair Housing policy, assistance animals are not pets, and therefore, are not subject to pet fees or deposits. This puts property owners and managers in the difficult position of identifying which requests are legitimate and which are not. “The overwhelming number of requests that housing providers receive are to allow animals in no-pets buildings, grant exceptions to existing policies on prohibited breeds or weight restrictions, or to avoid paying pet deposits or fees,” according to the National Apartment Association (NAA).
A lack of clarity in federal law for both service animals and emotional support animals can create loopholes and confusion. The greatest chance for misuse at the moment is with emotional support animals. Even with a legitimate need, many residents obtain documentation from inauthentic online providers.
These practices undermine the original intention of the Fair Housing Act—to help disabled people who legitimately need an assistance animal—while also putting an unfair burden on property owners and managers. The Federal Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehab Act (Section 504) protect persons with physical and/or mental disabilities who need an assistance animal. These laws directly impact property managers and how they would go about handling pet fees, deposits, and documentation.
As noted in an article featured in The New Yorker, “No government agency keeps track of [the number of accommodation requests for assistance animals], but in 2011 the National Service Animal Registry (NSAR), a commercial enterprise that sells certificates, vests, and badges for helper animals, signed up 2,400 emotional support animals. [In 2013], it registered 11,000.” And as of June 2019, NSAR has registered 196,513 service and emotional support animals.
What Can and Should a Property Manager Do?
While identifying what is and isn’t reliable disability-related documentation may cause friction and awkwardness between you and your residents, handling the situation lawfully is simply a matter of efficient tracking and having a firm grasp of the issue. First up: what are the legal definitions that fall under assistance animals? It’s important to know what type of service the animal provides in order to determine what type of request the resident should fill out.
Everyone involved should also know the basic facts regarding the person with a disability and their animal. Sometimes it is vital to train staff members on “what not to do,” as well as what procedures should be followed when accommodation requests are made.
Here are some important facts to remember when determining if an assistance animal is legitimate and whether or not an accommodation request is appropriate:
- Any type of legitimate support or service animal is legally NOT a “pet” and should not be considered as such.
- Property owners and property managers cannot require or take additional deposits because of a support or service animal.
- Property owners and/or managers can require any tenant, including a person with a disability, to qualify for properties based on income, rental history, and credit. They do not have to accept poor tenancy because an applicant is handicapped or has a service animal.
- If a tenant compromises the safety of other tenants or their property, if the animal poses a danger to other tenants, or the tenant does not qualify under the statuses, property owners and/or property managers do not have to allow the tenant in their rental units.
- Housing providers may ask individuals who have disabilities that are not readily apparent or known to the provider to submit reliable documentation of a disability and their disability-related need for an assistance animal.
- Property owners and/or managers must be very careful not to apply their own standards in determining whether a companion animal is justified.
- Depending on the classification of the disability and specific laws, an animal does not necessarily have to be a dog. The property management company and/or property owner need to tread carefully in this area and personnel needs to consult management.
How to Find Further Clarity Around Assistance Animals
An essential resource in mitigating the confusion and conflict surrounding assistance animal accommodations is clear—informed communication. Ensuring that you and your employees are up-to-date on Fair Housing policy will put your business in a stronger position to address any accommodation request. Additionally, there are a variety of efforts underway within the property management industry to help bring clarity to this topic. Organizations including the NAA, the Institute of Real Estate Management, the National Association of Residential Property Managers, and the Manufactured Housing Institute are advocating on behalf of property managers and owners to reduce/eliminate the abuse of current assistance animal policy.
The key is to know your rights, your residents’ rights, and the resources available to you when conflict occurs.
Rent Manager’s Assistance Animal Verification Solution
The newest addition to the Rent Manager Integrations Program, PetScreening.comTM is changing the way the rental housing industry manages household pets and assistance animals. Their free service for property managers provides an easy and standardized way to ensure validation for individuals with non-obvious disabilities or disability-related needs for an assistance animal. PetScreening follows the Fair Housing Act (FHAct) guidelines regarding reasonable housing accommodation requests for assistance animals. This ensures fair and equal treatment throughout the validation process.