Requests for assistance animal accommodations have skyrocketed in recent years. People with disabilities who need animals to assist them with major life activities may ask housing providers to make accommodations that will allow them to reside with their animals (even in a pet-free building) and to not pay any pet fees. Assistance animals, also called emotional support animals, are not limited to service animals, which are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Service animals are specifically trained dogs (or miniature horses) that do work or perform specific tasks for people with disabilities. Under the Fair Housing Act, the primary federal law that prohibits disability discrimination in housing, the definition of assistance animals includes other animals that perform work or provide emotional support for people with disabilities. There is no official certification or training requirement for assistance animals, and no limit on breed or type or animal.
Confusion and abuse related to emotional support animal requests have caused significant problems and concerns for property owners and managers. There are online services that provide emotional support animal certificates for a fee without a diagnosis or medical review. These online forms generate a realistic-looking doctor’s letter, which is often signed by a licensed medical professional who has neither met nor even spoken to the applicant. Housing providers struggle to discern legitimate requests for assistance animals while also meeting the needs of other tenants in the building who may have chosen to live in a no-pet property because of issues such as allergies, safety and noise.
For years, NAR has urged the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to clarify the law on assistance animal requests. HUD issued long-awaited guidance this January, which will hopefully cut down on abuse of this provision. The guidance recommends best practices for assessing an accommodation request, as well as guidelines on what information housing providers may request regarding the need for the accommodation, without violating the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition against disability discrimination.
While the guidance confirms that breed or even number of animals cannot be limited by the Fair Housing Act, property owners/managers may request specific information related to the need for each animal. Further, when a tenant requests an accommodation for an unusual animal (beyond the type generally considered a household pet), the requester has additional burdens to demonstrate the need for the specific type of animal. Among these are the specific disability-related therapeutic need that this type of animal can provide.
While breeds of animals cannot be prohibited, behavior by that specific animal may be considered. If an assistance animal has demonstrated a direct threat to the health and safety of others or to the property, the animal can be denied. Further, any damage caused by an animal is the responsibility of the tenant and can be charged to them or taken from their security deposit.
Included in HUD’s recent guidance is an outline of the specific types of documentation that housing providers may request of a person seeking an accommodation for an assistance animal. These include whether the healthcare professional providing information on the person’s disability-related need for the animal has a professional relationship with the patient, the date of their last consultation, whether the patient’s impairment substantially limits at least one major life activity, and why the patient needs the specific animal. It is important to note that a housing provider may not ask a tenant or applicant to provide documentation affirming the disability-related need for an assistance animal if the disability or disability-related need is readily apparent or already known to the provider (for example, a person with a vision impairment or physical disability). Housing providers may only inquire about the disability-related need of the animal, and may not make any inquiries about the nature or severity of a person’s disability, itself.
The new guidance is effective immediately and replaces HUD’s 2013 guidance on this subject. However, the guidance cautions that providers “should not reassess requests for reasonable accommodations that were granted prior to the issuance of this guidance.”
The guidance can be found on HUD’s website at www.hud.gov/sites/dfiles/PA/documents/HUDAsstAnimalNC1-28-2020.pdf.
Megan Booth is NAR’s director of federal housing, valuation and commercial real estate policy.