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Assistance and Emotional Support Animals

If you are a landlord or just considering leasing your home, you should become familiar with assistance and emotional support animals.  When you think of assistance or emotional support animals, we often think of dogs.  But squirrels, peacocks, pigs and even an alligator has made national headlines for being assistance or emotional support animals. As a landlord, you are probably thinking, how can any of these animals be allowed in a rental property.  So let’s discuss.

Anyone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or major life activities, has a record of impairment or is regarded as having impairment is considered disabled and is a part of a protected class under the federal Fair Housing Act.  The Fair Housing Act requires owners and landlords to make reasonable accommodation to the rules and places which a service or emotional support animal comes into play.

What is reasonable accommodation?

Reasonable accommodation is any communication that asked someone to make an exception to the rules or policies to afford a person with a disability an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling.  A request can be verbal or written.  An owner cannot request the prospective tenant to put the request in writing as there is no specific form the request must be submitted on.  There are no specific words that must be included on a reasonable accommodation request.  They are not even required to use the words reasonable accommodation.  And a request can be made by the tenant themselves, by a family member or even someone else on the tenants behalf.

What is the difference between an assistance, service or emotional support animal?

Assistance animal is a general term that covers service and emotional support animals.  These animals do not have to have a certificate or even specific training under the Fair Housing Act.  Service animals are performing a service for a person like a seeing eye dog or an animal that can detect the onset of a seizure.  An emotional support animal provides support to those which mental disabilities – this includes anxiety or depression.

Can you restrict types of animals?

No, it is a violation of the Fair Housing Act for a homeowner, landlord or even an insurance company or an HOA to enforce any restrictions to type, size or even breed of animal.

What if the disability is not clearly obvious?

If you cannot physically see there is a disability or a need for an assistance or emotional support animal, it is ok to ask for verification of the disability.  In order to ensure you are being fair, make sure you follow the exact same protocol each time.  If one person makes an assistance or emotional animal request, treat them the same and ask them the same questions you would ask the next tenant if they should have a similar request.

Be cautious on how you request proof a disability.

If the disability is obvious, there is no need to ask about the disability or the need for an assistance animal.  For example:  If a person is blind and they make a reasonable request for a seeing eye dog because the property has a no pets policy, there is no reason to ask for additional information on why the requester would need a seeing eye dog.

But if the disability is not apparent or not previously known, you may only ask for verification of the disability related need – not verification of the disability.  For example:  If someone who is blind makes a reasonable accommodation for an extra parking spot.  The disability is known, but the need for the extra parking space is not. You can ask the applicant about the need for the additional parking space, but you cannot ask for verification about the disability.

If the disability is not apparent or previously known, you may ask for verification of the disability and the additional need of accommodation.

Can an owner or landlord deny a reasonable accommodation request?

Yes, but there are if’s to consider.

  • If the landlord or owner has reliable and objective evidence that a person with a disability or a service animal poses a direct threat to others.
  • If there is no disability related need for the accommodation or no disability.
  • If the accommodation is not reasonable or if it imposes an undue financial burden on the owner or landlord. For example:  if the requester asks to have his or her trash picked up and that is beyond the scope of the services the owner or landlord provides

If the request is not reasonable considering an alternative accommodation that would be reasonable to the requester before denying their request.

Can an owner or landlord change pet fees or a pet deposit?

No.  Assistance, emotional support or service animals are not considered pets therefore the owner or landlord cannot charge a fee, additional rent or even a security deposit for the animal.  But the owner/landlord can deduct from the security deposit for the property if the assistance animal causes damage to the property.

Does the Americans With Disabilities Act apply to assistance animals and rental properties?

Emotional animals are covered under the Fair Housing Act, not the Americans With Disabilities Act.  There is no such thing as an emotional support animal under the ADA.  They only cover service animals like dogs and miniature horses in areas of public accommodation – where business is conducted. The Fair Housing Act applies to private property.

If you receive a reasonable accommodation request or even if you are considering leasing your property in future, ask your agent for a copy of the General Information for Landlord Regarding Assistance Animals.  Make sure you are fully aware of the laws and your responsibilities under those laws.  It is a best practice to establish guidelines or policies and procedures to ensure you are consistent and nondiscriminatory.  If you should have more questions about assistance animals or a reasonable accommodation request reach out to the Texas Workforce Commission’s Civil Rights Division.  This office will help guide you through the law.