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.
A document I recommend all housing providers read thoroughly is this one. It’s a joint statement of HUD and the Justice Department regarding accommodations for persons with disabilities under the FFHA. Many of the issues raised by property managers all over the country are specifically addressed in that document.
One of the things discussed in the document is the fact that, if a disability and/or need for a requested accommodation (Service Animal) is not obvious, then a housing provider is entitled to verification from a reliable source as to the disability and/or need. The online services where anyone can answer a few questions, pay a fee, and get a certificate, laminated ID card, vest, and “service animal letter” are not what I would consider “reliable.” In my view, these online services hurt both the rental housing providers and people with disabilities. If presented with a certificate or letter from one of these online services, I would probably reject it as meeting my requirement for verification of the need for an accommodation. (I say “probably,” because every situation is unique. Never say never…)
Once both the disability and the need for the requested accommodation (Service Animal) has been verified by a reliable source, that animal becomes an accommodation. It is not a pet. Pet rent, pet deposits, and other conditions of pet ownership in rental housing are not applicable. That is not to say that you can’t come to an agreement with the renter who has a service animal. You might negotiate an agreement whereby the renter picks up after the animal, keeps the animal under her control at all times, and is responsible for any damage that may be caused by the animal. All of those things are, in my opinion, reasonable things that can be easily negotiated. The best place to start with all of this is a “Service Animal Policy” for your office. Montana Fair Housing published several documents for this purpose that have been used by many property managers all over the country as templates for their own policy and forms.
The question of whether a ‘pit bull’ can be a service animal comes up quite a bit. Here’s another blog post that addresses the question of so-called “dangerous breeds,” and breed restrictions contained in some insurance policies. More and more insurance companies, cities, towns, and local jurisdictions are dropping breed restrictions from their policy language, ordinances, and statutes. Very simply, the science just doesn’t support breed restriction policies. Be sure to take a look at the HUD document addressing this, which is contained within the blog post. Cities, towns, zoning officials and insurance companies are all bound by the FFHA, as well.
Something that is rarely mentioned in these discussions, yet so important to remember is this: Many, if not most, disabilities are not obvious. You can’t tell by looking at someone that he suffers from chronic depression, high blood pressure, panic attacks, or any number of very life-limiting conditions that most certainly qualify as “disabilities” under the FFHA. Just because someone appears to you to be perfectly healthy, doesn’t mean she is. I would encourage all housing providers to take a step back from any knee-jerk reaction of assuming someone is lying about their need for a Service Animal. As our society ages, I think we’re going to see a steady increase in these requests by both our existing tenants and new/incoming tenants. As professional property managers, I believe it’s time for us to recognize that fact, and lead the way with our peers in the industry by opening doors to all housing consumers, as much as we possibly can. Making reasonable accommodations to our policies and procedures for people with disabilities is one way of expanding housing opportunities to all.
I hope you find this information helpful. Please, if you have concerns about Service Animals, or other property management issues, share them with me by leaving a comment on this post. Your concerns are the concerns of many in our profession. The more we can discuss those issues, the better we can serve our clients and customers, while raising the bar of professionalism in our industry. Thanks!