The Federal Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) protect persons with physical and/or mental disabilities. This legislation also includes how you treat animals needed by those with disabilities. These Fair Housing laws have a definite impact on the property management companies and their operations.
Over the years, the terminology has become more complicated. At first, the term generally used was service (handicapped) dogs or assistance animals. Now there are more types of support animals and how they relate to different disabilities. More legal actions on this subject have been a result and it has increased the Fair Housing laws and rulings. Many property owners and personnel have zero understanding of this issue, which can mean high liability for investors and property management companies.
So what is a property management company to do about this sensitive issue? A program of education, training, and good documentation/systems is part of the solution.
First, company owners, management, and licensed personnel need a comprehensive understanding of this subject. There are training classes available through various professional organizations and there is a wealth of information on the Internet, particularly through Federal websites, such as hud.gov. In addition, it is just as crucial to know state laws on Fair Housing, disabled tenants, and support animals. States vary on how you can handle support animals.
Property owners, tenants, and personnel have to be educated. First they need to know and the different types of support animals. Here is a general breakdown:
- A service animal is one individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Tasks performed can include, among other things, pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound, reminding a person to take medication, or pressing an elevator button. The Federal Fair Housing laws are specific regarding service animals. These animals can also be termed assistance or assist animals, support animals, guide animals, and hearing animals.
- An emotional support animal is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to an individual with a mental or psychiatric disability. The person seeking the emotional support animal must have a verifiable disability (the reason cannot just be a need for companionship). Fair Housing views these animals as a “reasonable accommodation” and a “no pets” rule does not apply.To qualify, a person must meet the federal definition of disability and must have a note from a physician or other medical professional stating that a person has a disability and that the reasonable accommodation (here, the emotional support animal) provides benefit for the individual with the disability. The emotional support animal alleviates or mitigates some of the symptoms of the disability. Companion or emotional support animals differ from service animals because no specific training of the animal is required.
- A psychiatric service dog is one that assists people with psychiatric disabilities, such as severe depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The key distinction to remember is that a psychiatric service animal trained to perform certain tasks directly related to an individual’s psychiatric disability. The dog’s primary role is not to provide emotional support but to assist the owner with the accomplishment of vital tasks they otherwise would not be able to perform independently.
Next, everyone involved should know basic facts regarding the disabled and their animals. Sometimes it is as vital to train people on “what not to do” as well as what procedures to follow. Here are some facts.
- Any type of legitimate support or service animal is legally NOT a “pet.”
- Property owners and property managers cannotrequire or take additional deposits or pet deposits because of a support or service animal.
- Property owners and/or managers can require anytenant, including the disabled, to qualify for properties based on income, rental history, and credit. They do not have to accept poor tenancy because an applicant is handicapped or has a service animal or companion animal.
- If a tenant compromises the safety of other tenants or their property, if the animal poses a danger to other tenants, or the tenant does not qualify under the statutes, property owners and/or managers do not have to allow the tenant in their rental units.
- Property owners and/or managers must be very careful not to apply their own standard on determining whether a companion animal is justified.
- Depending on the classification of the disability and specific law, an animal does not necessarily have to be a dog. The property management company and/or property owner need to tread carefully in this area and personnel need to consult management.
- Property owners and/or managers can ask for simple verification of the disability and the need for the animal as treatment if the disability is not obvious.
Important company documentation, such as the Policy and Procedures Manual, Management Agreement, and Support Animal Addendum should outline the basic policy on support animals and include the facts.
Please do not convey the information in this article as legal advice. My intent is to encourage property management companies to review their operations on this volatile issue and I recommend that you alwayshave a reliable real estate/property management attorney to consult when necessary. You should neverneglect this area. I am providing a basic support animal agreement to customize and use (see below). If you choose to use the form, consult your state laws regarding support animals and have your attorney review it to ensure it complies with federal and state law.