Stay out of hot water – know the difference

Image by Sarah Richter from Pixabay

Let’s be honest, all sorts of animals are kept as pets, and pets bring companionship and joy into the lives of millions of Americans. Many landlords have found it is good business to allow pets on their rental properties. Since it can be difficult to rent with a pet, pet owners will often be very appreciative and very respectful of your property and rules so that they can remain there.

Most landlords who allow pets establish rules for the number and size of pets. Rules requiring leashes on the property and picking up after dogs are near universal. Breed restrictions are losing favor, being replaced with proof of training or good temperament. It is also common for increased deposits to cover pet damage and/or renter’s insurance that includes losses caused by a renter’s pet.

While many landlords have found allowing pets to be an effective marketing tool and a profitable business strategy, many others, fearful of damage or liability caused by residents’ pets, choose to make their properties pet-free.

It’s your property and you should be able to decide if pets are allowed, right? The answer depends upon what your definition of a pet is, or more specifically on the definitions established by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Act.

Service Animals Must Be Allowed In Public Areas

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The ADA requires that people be able to bring service animals to areas of “public accommodation” where members of the public are allowed. In a single-family rental environment, this might be your office where people come to apply and pay their rent. On a multifamily property, it could apply to the leasing office, clubhouse, play areas, etc.

The ADA only applies to dogs and miniature horses that are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties. Service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”

If a disability is not obvious (e.g., a visually impaired person with a guide dog), you may only ask two questions, and you must take the person at their word:

1. Is the service animal required because of a disability?

2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

Service Animals In Rental Homes

Image by Sarah Richter from Pixabay

While the ADA only applies to areas open to the public, the Fair Housing Act applies to the living areas in your rental homes (there is an exclusion for owner-occupied dwellings of four or fewer units). The Fair Housing Act makes it “unlawful to refuse to make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

This means that landlords who have a no-pet policy must make the reasonable accommodation to allow a service animal to live with a disabled renter, and it prevents you from not renting to or otherwise discriminating against a disabled person because of a service animal. You can, and should, require a written request for a reasonable accommodation. Landlords may not charge an additional fee or deposit for a service animal.

If It Walks Like A Duck, It Might Be An Emotional Support Animal (ESA)

Image by Robert Balog from Pixabay

Mental disabilities are just as real as physical disabilities, and many people, while appearing “fine” on the outside, require the assistance of an animal to be able to cope with life’s daily activities. Unlike service animals, the law does not specify or limit what animal can be an ESA. Yes, even a duck could be an ESA.

As a result, a cottage industry has arisen to perpetrate fraud on landlords by helping renters claim a pet of any kind, and with or without any training, as an ESA. Conduct a web search for “emotional support animal” and you’ll find numerous websites offering to register an ESA animal or provide an “ESA letter.”

There is no such thing as registration or certification for ESA. You may ask a person requesting a reasonable accommodation for an ESA to provide third-party documentation from a healthcare professional affirming their disability and need for an ESA, and this is the aforementioned ESA letter. For a minimal fee (as low as $20), and a brief online or telephone “consultation,” you too can get a letter stating you need to have your ESA live with you. For a few dollars more, you can even buy a fancy service animal vest.

To help combat ESA abuses, some owners are requiring the ESA letter come from a local medical professional. Many state legislatures are beginning to tackle the issue, as ESA abuse is hurting renters who have a legitimate need. Any accommodation must be reasonable, and you can deny a request.

Allowing renters to have pets is a business decision. Providing reasonable accommodations for a trained service animal or legitimate emotional support animal is a legal requirement. But pet owners who abuse the system and buy online ESA letters are causing problems for everybody, so landlords should be aware and informed.

My Service Animal:

Because we’re sharing, here is my service animal.

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