Service or Companion Animals for Disabled Tenants

25 02 2009

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

dog

The Fair Housing Act
You are required to comply with The Fair Housing Act (FHA) if you rent private housing, housing that receives Federal financial assistance or State/Local government housing. Essentially, if you rent any property whatsoever, you must follow the laws established under the FHA.The FHA prohibits discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and family status.  It also prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.  Under this section, owners of rental properties are required “to make reasonable exceptions in their policies and operations to afford people with disabilities equal housing opportunities.”

Who is considered disabled?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines an individual with a disability to be

 “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

Pretty broad definition! And, the ADA does not specifically name all the impairments that are covered (it’s probably a very long list).

Making exceptions
So, if you’re a landlord, you are required to make “reasonable exceptions” to ensure disabled folks are not discriminated against. For example, even with a “no pets” policy, you may be required to make an exception to accommodate a service or companion animal. While a dog wearing a special red “service animal” vest or a wheelchair-pulling canine are pretty obvious, other companion animals are not so easy to spot.

You might think a deaf tenant would always be allowed to keep a dog to help out when the doorbell or phone rings, or the fire alarm is activated.  Actually, a court decided that a dog owned by two deaf women had never been trained to assist them in any way, and therefore was nothing more than a “house pet”—and the landlord won its case.
 [Bronk v. Ineichen, 54 F.3d 425 (7th Cir.1995)]

In another case, a dog with no training as a service animal was found to be therapeutic solely because of his “innate qualities.” The tenants were allowed to keep him. In still another case, a mentally disabled tenant was not allowed to keep two birds and two cats “for companionship.”
[Auburn Woods  Homeowners Ass’n v. Fair Employment and Housing Commission, 121 Cal.App.4 1578, 18 Cal.Rptr.3d 669] [Janush v. Charities Housing Development Corp., 169 F.Supp.2d 1133 (N.D. Cal, 2000).]

What’s a Landlord to Do?
Because court rulings on this topic are as varied as the genetic makeup of a pound puppy, it seems there are no hard and fast rules to follow. Consider the following general guidelines, and remember: this is not legal advice!  Every jurisdiction is subject to individual case law, so always seek the advice of your attorney for specific questions on your local laws, as well as FHA and ADA. 

  • The law protects both physically and mentally disabled individuals. Don’t assume a person is not disabled based on appearance.
  • Not all trained service animals wear special vests or harnesses. Don’t assume a prospective tenant’s animal is not a service animal based on appearance.
  • Highly trained service animals, as well as companion animals who might not be specially trained, are not considered “pets.” Therefore, a “no-pet” policy would not apply.
  • Emotional support animals provide just that service—emotional support—to their owners.
  • It is reasonable to ask for proof of disability and need for a service/companion animal from a tenant’s physician or other health care provider in cases where the disability and/or need is not obvious.
  • It is reasonable to require all animals living on your property to be properly vaccinated and to follow any and all rules regarding leashing, waste disposal, etc.
  • While you cannot discriminate under the FHA, you are perfectly within your rights to screen all prospective tenants’ background and credit history.Sources: Americans with Disabilities Act, Fair Housing Act, Fair Housing Institute
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