Fair Housing and Emotional Support Animals: What you need to know and how to be prepared

fair housing and support

“Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.” – George Eliot

It’s no secret that animals are special. We have all heard the stories of animals doing incredible things, from amazing tricks to life-saving feats. In fact, most of us have experienced an interaction with an animal that left us feeling better than before. Because animals have become such an integral part of our everyday lives, the number of Emotional Support Animals registered with the National Service Animal Registry has increased significantly in the last several years, going from 2,400 in 2014 to over 200,000 in 2019.

According to the Washington Post, more than 68% of American households have some sort of pet and most of those households will tell you their pets are part of the family. So much so, in fact, statistics show that 40% of dog owners purchased clothing for their pets in 2020 and the pet clothing market is expected to be worth 7 billion dollars by the year 2028. 

According to Johns Hopkins, 1 in 4 adults in the United States suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder with 9.5% of American adults suffering from depressive illnesses. Emotional Support Animals have become a more popular and widely accepted treatment option for those suffering from a variety of mental health issues.

What is an Emotion Support Animal (ESA)?

The first thing to recognize is Emotional Support Animals are not just pets. ESAs are a widely accepted and approved method of therapy for those facing mental health issues. Unlike household pets, Emotional Support Animals require very specific documentation as to their purpose  in relation to their owner’s disability. 

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), this documentation is recommended to include the following general information:

  • The patient’s name
  • Whether the health care professional has a professional relationship with that patient involving the provision of health care or disability-related services
  • The type of animal(s) for which the reasonable accommodation is requested 

HUD defines an Emotional Support Animal as any animal that provides emotional support alleviating one or more symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. Unlike service animals, they do not have, or require, special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities, are not limited to dogs, and are not considered service animals. 

Emotional Support Animals are also not to be confused with Psychiatric Service Dogs.  Psychiatric Service Dogs require extensive training to work specifically with people whose disability is due to mental illness, and while some of their purposes may be similar, it is important to make the distinction. 

What Is the Difference Between Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals?

There is a significant difference between service dogs and Emotional Support Animals. 

According to the American Kennel Club, “The key difference between a service dog and an emotional support dog is whether the animal has been trained to perform a specific task or job directly related to the person’s disability.”

For example, a service dog can be trained to alert hearing-impaired persons to certain noises, guide the visually impaired, or even alert diabetics of changes in their blood sugar. 

Emotional Support Animals, while serving an important purpose, don’t qualify as service animals, because they are not specially trained to assist with a particular disability. 

What Do Emotional Support Animals Actually Do?

Many of us are simply uninformed of exactly what an Emotional Support Animal does. Some are even skeptical of their purpose. But therapy dogs are often used in hospitals and nursing homes to help reduce stress and anxiety in patients. Even some libraries and learning centers have adopted “Reading to Dogs” programs for children, who are struggling readers, and have seen a lot of success. 

A study by Psychology Today states that animal-assisted therapy has shown to be helpful for those with autism, behavioral issues, depression, addictions, and even schizophrenia. Even adults who have had hip replacements, and utilize therapy dogs, require, on average, 50% less pain medication. 

Additionally, The National Institute of Health states that interaction with animals can help with normalizing heart rates and blood pressure, as well as reducing levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol.  

These changes can make all the difference to someone suffering from mental health problems.

What Does Fair Housing Have to Say?

In January of 2020, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) updated their guidance for owners and landlords assessing the needs of those requesting an animal as reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act. 

The Fair Housing Act states prospective tenants cannot be discriminated against due to a disability when obtaining housing. Once animals are identified as support animals, the resident can’t be terminated due to unauthorized animals living in the unit, and a request for the animal to remain in the unit must be processed. Also, any existing policies such as pet bans and breed or weight restrictions are required to be waived for those who have a valid prescription for an Emotional Support Animal, and they cannot be charged a pet deposit, or pet rent, for having their ESA reside with them in the unit. 

The Fair Housing Act has determined that requests for Emotional Support Animals should be processed as a reasonable accommodation.  Remember Fair Housing has defined a reasonable accommodation as a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service.  The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful to refuse reasonable accommodations when such accommodations may be necessary to afford persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling and public and common use areas.

 According to HUD, a resident may request a reasonable accommodation either before or after acquiring the assistance animal. In fact, “an accommodation also may be requested after a housing provider seeks to terminate the resident’s lease or tenancy because of the animal’s presence.” 

In other words, the resident is not required to request a reasonable accommodation at any specific time and once a request for an accommodation is made, the request must be processed prior to any action taken against the resident. 

How Can You be Prepared?

There are definitely a few things you can do to make sure you and your staff are prepared if or when you find yourself processing a reasonable accommodation for an Emotional Support Animal:

  • Don’t assume any animals are just house pets. 
  • Do remember, ESAs are required to have a specific purpose and documentation.
  • Don’t forget to ask the tenant if they house any pets considered emotional support animals prior to leasing. However, keep in mind they are not required by law to disclose this information prior to signing a lease. 
  • Do have a system in place to process this documentation, matching the tenant and ESA to the property.
  • Don’t assume residents are trying to scam you.
  • Do speak with the resident about their animals and ask for any documentation you may need to process a request for a reasonable accommodation. 
  • Don’t ask for details of the tenant’s disability. By law, you are not allowed to do this, and it could get you into trouble. 
  • Do always verify the documentation you receive.
  • Don’t assume the resident isn’t disabled just because it isn’t obvious. 
  • Do recognize many mental health disorders, and other disabilities, are not outwardly obvious. Any documentation should specify how the ESA assists with the resident’s disability. 

Educate yourself and your staff.

With the significant rise in the number of Emotional Support Animals, you will want to make sure your staff knows the ins and outs of reasonable accommodations for ESAs and the appropriate way to proceed in each circumstance. Also, make sure that you stay current on all policies concerning ESAs and how they are handled. 

Actor and activist, James Cromwell, said, “Pets are humanizing. They remind us we have an obligation and responsibility to preserve and nurture and care for all life.” 

It is so very wonderful to see this in action. 

  • Most communities will have breed and size restrictions
  • Residents need to identify all animals living in the unit, even support animals
  • Once animals are identified as support animals, the resident can’t be terminated due to unauthorized animals living in the unit, and a request for the animal to remain in the unit must be processed.
  • Landlords need to verify that the documentation the resident might have is “reliable documentation” with the “verifyer” that addresses the following information:
  • Personal knowledge of the resident and their disability
  • The need for the animal(s)
  • In cases of multiple ESAs, the request must be processed prior to any determination of lease violation
  • Residents may be asked to explain the need for their animal(s)
  • HUD – As a best practice, documentation contemplated in certain circumstances by the Assistance Animals Guidance is recommended to include the following general information: • The patient’s name, • Whether the health care professional has a professional relationship with that patient/client involving the provision of health care or disability-related services, and • The type of animal(s) for which the reasonable accommodation is sought (i.e., dog, cat, bird, rabbit, hamster, gerbil, other rodent, fish, turtle, other specified type of domesticated animal, or other specified unique animal).
  • Physician, Psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professional.
  • Research shows that ESAs reduce anxiety and feelings of loneliness. Experiences normalized heart rate, blood pressure, and reduced depression

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