How Tenants With Service Animals Are Protected With Fair Housing Laws

Posted by WILMOTH Group on January 14, 2020

The Fair Housing laws of this country are designed to protect consumers from many types of discrimination or being taken advantage of by individuals in the real estate related trades.  Therefore, these laws create responsibilities that are expected to be respected in the practice of real estate.  The Federal government is on the front line of enforcement and all the states provide their own set of laws also.

You may be surprised to learn that having a pet may be protected under the Fair Housing laws.  Some owners of private property believe they can create a “no pets” policy and be exclusive of all owners of any kind of pet.  What happens if an applicant for a home informs the owner or manager they have a “service animal”?  It is important that everyone recognizes that the applicants right to bring a service animal into a property that is strictly “no pets” is protected under the Fair Housing laws.

Service Animals Are Protected And You Might Be Surprised To Learn What Can Be A Service Animal

It is also important to know that definitions of service animals differ under Fair Housing laws and the Americans With Disabilities (ADA) laws.  Many people believe the definition of a service animal is a dog because that is what is addressed in the ADA.  Did you know that under Fair Housing laws  an owner can also be required to provide a home for snakes and birds and other types of animals that people often consider pets?  So if told that an applicant has a snake they keep as a service animal, don’t laugh.

What Is A Reasonable request For A Service Animal?

A reasonable request for housing for a service animal must meet the following criteria:

Person making the request must have a disability which is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities and the person has a disability related need for the assistance animal.

Just because the housing provider can’t determine that the applicant has a disability does not allow them to deny the request of the service animal.  Did you know that people with issues as diverse as bereavement over the loss of a spouse may qualify to own a service animal for comfort and companionship?  That “disability” will likely not show up on an application or an in-person interview.  But I have seen it or I would never have known myself.

How Easy Is It To Get In Trouble?

In May 2015, a Minneapolis apartment complex  found themselves on the wrong end of a Fair Housing federal lawsuit due to a similar situation.  A tenant acquired a pit bull due to past traumas and the dog has become a significant part of her good mental health and treatment.   One problem, before she received the dog nobody considered there might be a pet rule in the community that prohibits occupancy of pit bulls.  In this situation, it appears the government is stating that such rules really can’t be enforced when it comes to a tenant’s rights under the Fair Housing act as it pertains to  disabilities.  The government considers the plaintiff’s condition to be protected under the Fair Housing Act.  So, clearly caution must rule any decision regarding animals that a tenant wishes to keep on your property.

The law does allow the housing provider to request documentation from a reliable source and it is also acceptable to ask about the need of a certain type of service animal (think snakes) if the need is not apparent.  I would be careful here as the referenced snake may not provide comfort to me but it just might to your applicant. HUD states the kinds of documentation that a housing provider must accept includes a letter from a physician, social worker, psychologist, or other mental health professional. While it is acceptable to dig further into the need of a service animal if the need is not apparent, it is also against Fair Housing Laws to ask for such documentation if the applicant’s disability is apparent.  Don’t even consider requesting such proof if a person is vision impaired and has a guide dog.  The need for the service animal is clear and you will then be violating Fair Housing laws.

Be Careful Not To Make A Mistake With A Service Animal Request

Also, do not charge any pet fees or deposits to a protected applicant. There are a couple of exceptions.  If the animal poses a risk of harm to others or would create an undue financial burden for the housing provider the request can be denied.  This evaluation must be done though on the type of animal, not the breed or size.  In the May 2015 Minneapolis Fair Housing suit, it appears the argument was based on breed and not behavior of the pit bull.

Remember that the burden of proof falls on the housing provider to demonstrate a legitimate and allowed reason for denying the request.  This exception could end up costing far more that it was worth to decline the applicant if HUD chooses to challenge.   I would not advise a property owner to deny an application utilizing one of these exceptions.  Subjectivity and the federal government do not get along well and the government has an endless funding source to absolutely ruin your day/week/month/life.  Of course, in multi-family environments forget about what the animals presence might do to their comfort.  Airlines learned this lesson and it is important for a landlord to not think that housing is any different than several hours locked into a metal tube at 30,000 feet.

Fair Housing covers many types of unusual circumstances.  Proceed with caution

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WILMOTH Group is headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana and Fort Myers, Florida. We focus on providing creative local solutions for a variety of residential real estate needs including, properties for sale, property management services in Indianapolis, and short-term management services in Tampa and Fort Myers.