Emotional Support Animals in Rental Housing

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This issue is often confusing for housing providers and property managers. How can we tell if there is a real need for an emotional support animal (ESA), or if the renter is trying to circumvent our pet policies?

 

What questions can we ask, and what kind of verification are we entitled to? These questions (and more) are answered in a NEW class entitled “ESAs in SFRs (and Apts)” being offered in Reno on June 20th. Details and registration information here.

 

If you’re planning to attend this class, and you have specific questions about a situation you are encountering now in your property management practice, please email me. I’ll make sure we cover it in the session.

 

If you can’t attend, yet you have questions on this topic, please ask your questions as a comment on this post. I’m happy to answer publicly. My goal is to clear up the confusion for property managers and other housing providers surrounding this important topic.

 

 

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New Service for Pet Screening!

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Today’s blog post is a guest entry by John Bradford of “petscreening.com.”

 

There are two Ps that can cause property damage – People and Pets.  If you are a housing provider and property manager then you deal with both on a daily basis. Pets are animals but animals are not always pets. This is demonstrated when dealing with Assistance Animals (i.e. service/companion/emotional/therapy/etc.) These animals are not pets, but rather, serve as an assistive device to help an individual with a disability.

The ABCs of Pet Screening

Pets are not a protected class. Housing providers and property managers are free to accept/decline as they see fit. The reality, though, is approximately 45% of applicants have at least one household pet so having a no pet policy can, arguably, be a costly policy. That said, housing providers and property managers should understand the risks when dealing with pets because, after all, if something happens it’s going to be considered on your watch. There are three areas, known as the ABCs, to help significantly improve pet diligence: Affirmation, Behavioral, and Compatibility.  Affirmation is getting the pet owner on the record about the general care of their pet such as having current vaccinations as well as going to a veterinarian on a regular basis. Behavioral is ensuring there is a stated history about a pet’s past and present behaviors such as knowing if FIDO has ever bitten a person or another animal. Compatibility is having more details on a pet’s breed, weight, sex, pictures, vaccinations and more.  The ABCs can vary greatly for each pet. Pets are not equal and neither is the pet’s owner general care.

Assistance Animals Are Not Pets

Assistance Animals are intended to help to help an individual with a disability. The problem in the housing industry is that Assistance Animal fraud does happen. It’s sad, but true, that some pet owners will try to claim their pet is an Assistance Animal just to avoid paying a pet deposit/pet fee/pet rent. The FHAct is intended to protect those who legitimately need Assistance Animals, but there is an incredible amount of complexity in reviewing each claim. Property managers are not fair housing experts, so the pressure to handle these claims correctly is compounded by a lack of expertise. There are some published suggested guidelines from HUD, but these documents still leave many unresolved issues. There remains very little case law to reference, so property managers must do their best to determine if the requestor’s documentation is both reliable and credible. It’s advisable to request documentation about the disability-related need for the Assistance Animal, verify the therapeutic relationship between the requestor and verifier, request information about licensure, registration, profession, compliance of the verifier, and confirm the animal does not present a direct health or safety threat to others or has a past history of such behavior. It’s inadvisable to request documentation about the requestor’s disability, share/provide access to requestor’s medical records with others (HIPAA privacy laws), limit reliable/credible documentation to medical doctors/physicians only (there is no exhaustive list), require animal training documentation (except for Service Animals), implement breed and size restrictions, and charge a fee of any kind. There are still subjective areas of interpretation such as telemedicine, formulaic on-line questionnaires to issue recommendation letters for Assistance Animals, video counseling, and for-profit businesses exclusively focused on issuing recommendation letters for Assistance Animals. In summary, dealing with Assistance Animals can be complex and stressful.

Pet (and Assistance Animal) Screening – Liability Reduction & Revenue Potential

For clarity, you can charge fees for pets, but you cannot charge for Assistance Animals. There is a real opportunity for housing providers and property managers to generate new pet-related revenues assuming one has the insight into the ABCs of a specific pet. Variable pet deposits/pet fees/pet rents are rarely utilized, but are very achievable when you have the right data at your fingertips.

The options for housing providers and property managers are usually to handle these matters in-house or outsource the review/decision making to an attorney which can be expensive. Now, there is a third option which is relatively new to the marketplace but is rapidly gaining traction.  It is PetScreening.com.  This is not an advertorial because PetScreening.com is no cost to housing providers and property managers. In fact, the tool can actually help generate new pet-related revenue streams while adding a third-party layer of liability protection and the validation of Assistance Animals. PetScreening.com provides your firm with a standardized way of handling household pets and Assistance Animals. The tool creates a comprehensive Pet Profile for each pet based on the ABCs discussed above. Each Pet Profile is accessible 24×7 in an on-line report with a unique URL that can be shared with your property managers, field inspectors, maintenance vendors, and, perhaps, even your property owners. Every Pet Profile is up-to-date and receives an easy-to-read 1 to 5-paw score. Only Property Manager users can see the factors that impact each Pet Profile score. The scoring can be used to help create standardized pet-related fee schedules that are variable and correlate with each Pet Profile score. Lastly, not only is PetScreening.com zero cost to housing providers and property managers, but a rebate is earned and paid quarterly for every active Pet Profile. The scoring, however, is not applicable to Assistance Animals. These types of applications are reviewed, on a case by case basis, by the PetScreening.com team of reviewers who work with the requestor/applicant to seek credible and reliable documentation to support the Assistance Animal claim.

Check it Out!

In closing, housing providers and property managers are experts at managing rental assets such as single-family homes, multi-family communities, and vacation rentals. Pets and Assistance Animals are a necessity of the housing industry, but they add both additional complexity and liability to your business. PetScreening.com is free, delivers incredible value to its users, and is changing the way the housing industry deals with pets and Assistance Animals.

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Do you use criminal records in your tenant selection process?

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If so, you’ll want to read this.

 

All levels of government should adopt requirements making it clear [that housing] cannot be denied to those with a criminal justice history, unless there is a legitimate public safety reason for doing so.”

-Deborah De Santis, President and CEO of CSH (Corporation for Supportive Housing)

ball-and-chain

 

In November last year, HUD released a memo specifically addressing a practice employed by many rental property owners and managers – the use of an applicant’s criminal records to determine eligibility for rental housing. Just today, HUD released additional guidance for housing providers, further clarifying the memo. That’s when the news media picked it up.

As expected, you’ll hear much talk out there on both sides of the issue. Some claim it’s government overreach. Others celebrate efforts to provide needed support to those reentering communities from incarceration. In my view, as a housing provider, if you’re using clear and objective criteria for evaluating rental prospects, you’re not likely to run afoul of HUD’s position. In simple language, it says:

  • Housing providers should have policies that apply to everyone, and are evenly enforced.
  • An arrest history is not the same as conviction history. Simply because someone was arrested for a crime does not mean he/she committed the crime.
  • If a housing provider considers criminal background when evaluating potential tenants, the housing provider should not have a blanket “one-strike” rule that fails to take into consideration the type of crime, the length of time since the crime was committed, and the applicant’s actions/activities since the crime.
  • Applicants should have the right of “due process” when it comes to the landlord’s qualification criteria. In other words, the applicant should have the opportunity to explain extenuating circumstances, and have the landlord reconsider its decision.
  • Some crimes can be “one-strike” offenses, provided the housing provider is able to justify their policy protects the safety of others, and/or the property.

One important piece of HUD’s guidance on this issue is contained in the following excerpt from HUD’s FAQ on the matter:

…when owners make the decision to reject an applicant on the basis of a criminal record, the owner must provide the applicant with a written rejection notice.  This notice must state the reason for the rejection, advise of the applicant’s right to respond to the owner in writing or to request a meeting within 14 days to dispute the rejection, and advise that persons with disabilities have the right to request reasonable accommodations to participate in the informal hearing process.

Since most of us already provide written notices to prospects when we deny their applications to rent, this shouldn’t be much of a burden. We simply need to remember to inform the prospect of his/her right to request a meeting to dispute a rejection based on criminal history. So far, our credit reporting agency has not, to my knowledge, amended our “Adverse Action Notice” to include such a provision. Until they do, should the need arise, we’ll be adding language to comply with HUD’s rule.

How do you view criminal background information when evaluating a prospective tenant? Will this new guidance change your policies or procedures? If so, how?

 

 

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Disparate Impact – Stop with the Panic Bells, Already!

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united-states-of-america-signAs you likely are aware, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) handed down its ruling this week, affirming the validity of Disparate Impact Theory in Fair Housing cases. Immediately, some of my colleagues in the property management industry began ringing the panic bells. “This will change everything!” No, it won’t.

This is Nothing New!

HUD and DOJ have been using Disparate Impact Theory to prove fair housing cases for 40 years! All this SCOTUS decision did, was to uphold policies, rules, and practices that were already in place. This changes nothing. It simply affirms what has been the case for decades.

Continue reading “Disparate Impact – Stop with the Panic Bells, Already!”

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Service Animals, Companion Animals, Assistance Animals…Oh My!

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Service_AnimalsAn open letter to the Property Management community…

As a property manager myself, I certainly understand and sympathize with your concerns around the topic of service animals. There still seems to be a great deal of confusion in the industry over which laws apply, in this area. In a blog post a few years back, I discussed the difference between the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Federal Fair Housing Act (FFHA). It’s important to remember that these are two different laws, with entirely different applications. ADA applies to public accommodations only – not housing. The FFHA, however, applies to housing. If you’re not clear on the differences, please take a few moments to read that blog post. It contains links to important HUD documents that explain the differences between the two laws, particularly in the area of service/assistance animals.

 

In very brief summary, ADA holds quite a narrow definition of “Service Animal.” For purposes of ADA, a Service Animal is a trained dog (and, in some cases, a miniature horse) – one that is specifically trained to perform a task to aid a person with a disability. The FFHA, on the other hand, takes a much broader view. The terms “service animal,” “therapy animal,” “comfort animal,” “companion animal,” “assistance animal…” all mean the same thing, under fair housing law. (For purposes of simplicity from this point forward, I’ll collectively refer to these animals as “Service Animals.”) Essentially ANY animal (or animals) who aids a person with a disability, in some way, to cope with the outcomes of that disability is considered a Service Animal under the FFHA. Furthermore, those animals do not have to be trained to perform a specific task. Sometimes, their ‘job’ is simply to exist! There is a great deal of scientific evidence out there to support the fact that animals are beneficial to our health. This concept is embraced by the FFHA.   Continue reading “Service Animals, Companion Animals, Assistance Animals…Oh My!”

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Converting Rentals to 55+ Status (HOPA)

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seniorsThe Reader’s Digest version of this post, for those who prefer that kind of thing, is “No.” Just no. Only in very rare cases, can you convert an existing rental property from a traditional residential rental (welcoming families with children), to a 55+ property, under the exemptions contained in the Housing for Older Persons Act of 1995 (HOPA).

A property manager recently asked me whether her client could declare the client’s duplex a “55+ Community,” ‘since it’s a multifamily property.’

First, I suggested he talk to his lawyer, or Silver State Fair Housing Council. Then, “A duplex isn’t a ‘multifamily’ property. That term generally applies to 4+ units. Since this property is not part of a larger ‘association’ of similar properties who’ve formed an association… and, since there are no governing documents for your client’s property that address any kind of HOPA exemption, no. No, your client can’t do that.”  Continue reading “Converting Rentals to 55+ Status (HOPA)”

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When Saving Time Can Cost You Time (and Money!)

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As successful property managers, we quickly learn the importance of streamlining our policies and procedures, by establishing methods to save both time and effort. The profit margin in this business is tight, and if we fail to employ standardization and time-saving strategies, we’ll never succeed. I’ve noticed the average burnout time for most new property managers seems to be about 2 years. That’s how long it takes to realize it’s not a money-making business, unless we have policies and procedures in place that make the job doable.

Continue reading “When Saving Time Can Cost You Time (and Money!)”

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New Fair Housing Class – Available Nationally

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justiceThe finishing touches have been applied, and it’s ready to go! A brand new class entitled “What’s New in Fair Housing: Cases, Settlements & Trends for Property Managers” is the result of many months of research, analysis, and compilation of information about the steadily-evolving trends and cases around the Federal Fair Housing Act, today. As a property manager, you’re undoubtedly aware of the huge impact this body of law has on our industry. Still, you may find yourself confused about such things as

  • The differences between a “service animal,” “therapy animal,” “companion animal,” and “assistance animal.”
  • What you can and cannot ask a prospective resident about his or her disability.
  • Whether you could be held liable for a discriminatory statement made by someone else.
  • Whether you can continue to use the same tenant qualification criteria you’ve always used, without risking a fair housing claim.

This course was designed as a 3-hour program, but can be extended to as many as 6 hours, depending on the needs of your organization. Believe me, there’s plenty of information to fill the time!

Not only will this class be an eye-opener for all who attend, you’ll actually take away some very practical tools for use in your day-to-day business – stuff you can put to work for your company right away!

Want more information? Ask away, by leaving a comment below!

 

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Assistance Animal Fair Housing Case in Reno Nevada

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BassetHot off the presses! The U.S. Department of Justice just announced a settlement with a Reno, NV apartment complex regarding the management’s treatment of residents with assistance animals. From the DOJ’s press release:

“The department’s complaint had alleged that the owners, employees and management company of Rosewood Park Apartments violated the Fair Housing Act by limiting individuals with certain assistance animals to a particular section of Rosewood Park Apartments; subjecting such individuals to pet fees; requiring assistance animals to be licensed or certified; and barring companion or uncertified service dogs altogether.”

The settlement in this case was $127,500, payable to a family who was denied housing (because of their assistance animal), Continue reading “Assistance Animal Fair Housing Case in Reno Nevada”

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Disparate Impact: You don’t have to intend to discriminate to violate fair housing law!

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JuEqual_Housing_Logo_GIFst today, The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued its “final rule”   on disparate impact under the federal Fair Housing Act.

This final rule responds to a heated battle between housing providers (broadly defined to include all parties involved in selling, renting, insuring, lending, and zoning of residential property in the U.S.) and fair housing advocates that ended up in front of the Supreme Court last year. (Just this month, the case was withdrawn, presumably in response to HUD’s published position on the issue.)

 What is “Disparate Impact?”

Section 100.500(a) provides that a “discriminatory effect” occurs where a facially neutral practice actually or predictably results in a discriminatory effect on a group of persons protected by the Act (that is, has a disparate impact), or on the community as a whole on the basis of a protected characteristic (perpetuation of segregation). Any facially neutral action, e.g., laws, rules, decisions, standards, policies, practices, or procedures, including those that allow for discretion or the use of subjective criteria, may result in a discriminatory effect actionable under the Fair Housing Act and this rule. For examples of court decisions regarding policies or practices that may have a discriminatory effect, please see the preamble to the proposed rule at 76 FR 70924-25.

Simply stated, disparate impact occurs when a housing provider’s policies or actions, although neutral and non-discriminatory on their face, serve to disproportionately negatively impact a protected class of individuals, as defined under the Fair Housing Act.   Continue reading “Disparate Impact: You don’t have to intend to discriminate to violate fair housing law!”

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