Whether you’re a resident with a disability or a property manager wondering how to handle assistance animals, you know that emotional support animals are a complicated topic.
Both parties need to make sure they respect what the Fair Housing Act (FHA) states about ESAs, but some questions don’t have straightforward answers.
Let’s explore everything you need to know about ESAs and figure out if and when a landlord can deny an emotional support animal from a resident.
Emotional support animals (ESA) are a type of assistance animal. Similar to service animals, they provide assistance to humans with disabilities.
Unlike service animals, an ESA will provide emotional support to help ease someone’s disability or illness.
You can argue that all pets offer emotional support and well-being to their owners, but an emotional support animal is specifically prescribed by a licensed medical professional, just like they’d prescribe a medication.
And like medication, ESAs can be prescribed to someone with a disabling physical or mental illness if they believe an ESA can help them improve their quality of life.
There are three types of animals someone can adopt in their homes: pets, emotional support animals, and service animals.
So what’s the difference between all three?
First, let’s talk about household pets. Pets can also be called companion animals. They include any type of domestic animal owned by residents for company or entertainment.
While dogs and cats are popular choices for pets, they can also include other species, such as birds, rodents, reptiles, and more.
Emotional support animals, on the other hand, provide emotional support on top of the usual comfort and companionship. For example, someone with a generalized anxiety disorder may get an ESA to help ease the symptoms of anxiety.
An ESA can be all sorts of animals that traditionally serve as pets. However, they’re certified animals prescribed by a licensed medical professional, not just a pet. This important distinction comes into play when dealing with the FHA.
Finally, service animals are highly trained animals who can perform specific tasks to help someone with a disability. These animals don’t provide emotional support. They’re also trained and certified in a specific task.
For example, you’ll commonly come across people with blindness or low vision who use guide dogs to get around. But service animals can also help for:
A service animal can only be a dog or a miniature horse. No other species has been proven capable of receiving the correct training to perform the required tasks of a service animal. Not all species of dogs are well-suited to this type of training, either.
Unlike emotional support animals, a service animal is legally allowed to follow their owner everywhere they go. So, while a person with a service dog can bring their dog to a restaurant or shopping mall, someone with an ESA can't do the same thing.
So now you know that ESAs don’t have the same rights as service animals. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have any rights, either.
The Fair Housing Act has several sections that protect residents against discrimination. This law helps everyone have equal access to housing, regardless of the following:
Notice that one of the protected groups is people with disabilities. Because of this, the FHA has a section about assistance animals.
Under the new guidelines, here’s what defines an assistance animal:
“Support animal,” defined as “other trained or untrained animals that do work, perform tasks, provide assistance, and/or provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities.”
Under the FHA, pets aren’t protected. However, ESAs are included in the list of protected animals since they provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities.
The HUD states that housing providers can’t legally refuse a request when someone’s disability requires them to have an ESA for equal opportunity to live on the property.
This means that living without an ESA would cause this person to struggle with their mental health.
However, a property manager can refuse an ESA if they demonstrate that:
For example, let’s say a renter gets a new ESA with the proper documentation. However, you notice this animal behaves erratically when they’re in public spaces on the property. If you fear this animal could injure other residents, this would be grounds to deny the renter’s request.
That’s because someone’s right to an ESA doesn’t trump the rights of other residents to live safely on your property.
It’s ill-advised to refuse an ESA, even when their breed is part of an insurance-mandated restricted breed.
As a housing provider, it’s your responsibility to prove that refusing an ESA because of their breed is your last option for insurance coverage. However, you have the responsibility to try and find other solutions before you flat-out refuse an ESA.
According to the HUD, residents need to provide a request with the right information about the disability. An ESA letter is only enough if it comes from a licensed mental health professional (LMHP).
But presenting the letter on its own isn’t enough. The resident also needs to make a reasonable accommodations request. This request will include the ESA letter as part of the process.
PetScreening rejects “certificates, registrations, and licensing documents” as insufficient to support a request, but it does honor letters coming from licensed healthcare professionals, even if they provide services remotely online.
If renters need to make a request for reasonable accommodations, what does that mean, exactly?
Reasonable accommodations are adjustments that property managers make in their rules or processes to provide fair access to housing. Residents can make a request for reasonable accommodations for all sorts of reasons if they believe they are being treated unfairly when it comes to housing access.
For example, a resident can request to live with an ESA, even if the property has a no-pets policy.
Residents can also make requests in the case when properties allow pets. For example, they can request to waive a pet fee or deposit for an ESA. Why? Because it is unfair to charge someone for treatment prescribed to them by a medical professional. They need their assistance animal for their disability — a pet fee for an ESA is not equal access.
On the other hand, owning a regular house pet is a choice. That’s why you can charge pet fees to someone who doesn’t have an ESA letter.
Reasonable accommodations requests are necessary for residents to get their ESA approved in a property that has a no-pets policy, but it can add an administrative burden for property managers. Pet Screening can help residents submit their requests and can help property owners manage and filter through requests.
It’s important to be aware of the signs of ESA fraud to protect yourself as a property manager.
60% of reasonable accommodations requests reviewed by PetScreening get returned to the animal owner because of insufficient documentation. If you’re not careful, you could be allowing animals onto your property even if they don’t qualify as ESAs, which means you could be losing out on potential ancillary revenue.
But that doesn’t mean that all 60% of people who provide insufficient documentation are purposefully trying to commit fraud. Unfortunately, there are several fraudulent ESA services that provide fake letters to their patients.
For example, there’s no such thing as an ESA registry. If your renter shows you proof of registration, this doesn’t legally hold up.
Other signs of fraud or fake ESA letters could include:
When in doubt, you can reach out to the licensed mental healthcare professional on the ESA letter. They’ll be able to verify whether the signature is valid. You can also research this healthcare provider to make sure they’re licensed in your state.
Are you worried about the business risks that renters with emotional support animals can entail? Luckily, there are several ways to mitigate these risks.
First, consider implementing a verification system with a third party like PetScreening to avoid ESA fraud.
When you outsource the verification of reasonable accommodations requests, you can focus your efforts on other aspects of managing your property. You can also rest easy knowing you’ve done your due diligence on every single application.
You should also ask HUD-permissible questions for people who have non-obvious disabilities. For example, you can’t ask someone what diagnosis they have. However, you can ask for more information about their licensed medical provider if you want to take verification into your own hands.
You can also ask if their emotional support animal has been properly trained. Without proper training, an ESA could cause a safety risk to other renters.
To balance the financial risk of ESAs, you can also charge a pet fee or pet rent to the regular pet owners in your building. However, keep in mind you can’t charge this fee for ESAs.
You can use the FIDO pricing tool to figure out what to charge.
Finally, you can implement a pet policy that all residents must adhere to. Pet policies keep residents safe and encourage pet owners to be responsible.
Emphasize the importance of your policies to ESA owners who live on your property. Unless your policies go against the reasonable accommodations request, any renter with an ESA should follow the same policies that pet owners adhere to.
Are you a renter who’s gotten an ESA letter denied by a property manager? Know that you have legal recourse.
Verify if you have the right documentation first. That’s because your property manager has the right to refuse your request for reasonable accommodations if you don’t have a proper ESA letter signed by a licensed mental health provider.
For example, showing proof of your ESA’s registration isn’t enough. Unfortunately, ESA registrations don’t have any legal basis.
They may also refuse if your ESA letter is several years old.
You should also consider showing your property manager that your ESA is well-trained and safe for other residents. If that’s not the case, make sure to start training your ESA and tell your property manager about your training process.
If everything is in order and you believe your ESA is well-behaved, you can file a complaint with the HUD.
Know that retaliation is illegal, so you’re safe to make a complaint. You should also do your best to speak to your property manager before you escalate the situation to try to maintain a good relationship with them.
Managing emotional support animals and reasonable accommodation requests is a complex matter for property owners and managers.
On the one hand, you must do your due diligence to protect yourself. On the other hand, you must respect the rights of your residents who require reasonable accommodations.
You can simplify how you verify ESAs and other assistance animals per HUD & FHA guidelines, thanks to PetScreening. Get this puppy started today to ease the burden of ESA requests!