Pet owners

Do I have to tell my landlord I have an ESA?

Sarah Smith
March 20, 2023

    So, you’ve just gotten an emotional support animal or finally received your ESA letter — or you already have an ESA and are looking to move into a new rental property. And now you’re wondering exactly how to handle the topic with your landlord.

    So, do you have to tell your landlord you have an emotional support animal? What happens if your landlord has a no-pets policy? 

    Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about your rights as a resident and how to handle the conversation with your landlord about your ESA. 

    What to know about the Fair Housing Act

    The Fair Housing Act (FHA) was created to ensure everyone gets access to housing regardless of gender, race, disability, and much more. 

    It helps to prevent discrimination against residents in their homes by property owners or managers. 

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    Because people with disabilities are a protected group, property managers can’t discriminate against them if they need reasonable accommodations to live comfortably in their homes. This means that property managers are legally required to actively look for solutions to help residents with disabilities have equal access to housing in their buildings.

    One of the reasonable accommodations property managers must make is to allow people with disabilities to live with their assistance animals if they have the proper documentation for it.

    Even if a property has a no-pets policy, people who have the correct documentation for their assistance animals will be allowed to live with their animal within their unit. But first, the resident needs to make a request for reasonable accommodations. 

    The new guidelines from the Fair Housing Act state that the following animals are protected:

    “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.”

    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.  But keep in mind, pets aren’t protected under this law, only ESAs.

    If you have a pet and simply want to be able to live with them anywhere, you can’t just ask for an ESA letter for your pet. A licensed medical provider must prescribe you the need for an ESA, but your current pet may not qualify as an ESA.

    Do I have to tell my landlord I have an emotional support animal? 

    Let’s say you’ve just received your ESA letter from a licensed healthcare provider. You finally adopt your assistance animal, but you live in a no-pets housing unit. As a result, you decide not to tell your landlord about your ESA.

    If a property manager finds out about your ESA, they can't evict you if you have proper documentation and if you decide to make a request for reasonable accommodations. Even if you first hid your ESA from them, you’ll still have a chance to make the request.

    If the property manager evicts you despite you making a request, they’ll be breaking the law, according to the FHA. 

    Knowing when to tell your landlord about your emotional support animal can be tough to figure out. However, that doesn’t mean you should lie about having an ESA. Even if they can't evict you, this lie can hurt your relationship and erode trust.

    Over time, this can make your relationship with your property manager more difficult. And this can add a source of stress to your life, depending on how severe it gets. That’s why it’s always better to be transparent with property managers. 

    PetScreening can prepare you for this conversation by keeping all your ESA’s information in one place.

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    If you want to keep your ESA a secret because you fear pet fees, you don’t need to worry about that, either. Keep in mind that landlords can’t legally charge you a pet fee, pet rent, or pet deposit for an assistance animal.

    These fees only apply to pets. So, if you have other pets in your household that aren’t ESAs, you can still get charged a fee for them.

    But what happens if you’re looking for a new housing unit and fear getting passed up for someone who doesn’t have an ESA? Obviously one option is to tell your new landlord about your ESA after you’ve already signed the lease. Doing so can help you fight discrimination. Another option is to look for animal friendly properties and avoid the stress altogether.

    How do I present my ESA letter to my landlord?

    An ESA letter is an official document you can get from a licensed medical professional. The official name for an ESA letter is an ESA Letter for Housing.

    This letter proves that you require your ESA and that your ESA is certified due to disabilities.

    Just like a property manager can't stop you from taking medication, a landlord can't stop you from owning an ESA if you have the proper prescription.

    Your landlord may also call it “reasonable supporting documentation” or “reasonable accommodation request.”

    Once you have an ESA letter, it’s time to present it to your property manager. Let’s go over a few best practices for how to present this documentation.

    An example ESA letter from a tenant.
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    First, always keep a digital paper trail of your submission. A paper trail will allow you to prove that you’ve made the request for reasonable accommodations. If your property manager were to retaliate against you or send a notice of eviction, you’d have proof that you went through the proper process to be allowed to live with your ESA.

    To keep a proper paper trail, send a copy of your ESA and request for reasonable accommodation via email. You can also choose to tell your landlord verbally about your request, but then follow the verbal request with an email chain. Be positive and upfront rather than defensive or aggressive when communicating with your landlord.

    You can also mail a physical copy of the letter if you have access to it. 

    By telling your property manager about your ESA using all three methods, you’ll have all your bases covered.

    What if your property manager asks why you need an ESA? 

    You’re not legally required to disclose anything about your health or condition, whether it’s a physical disability or a mental disability. And your landlord isn’t entitled to know about it. All they need to know is that your healthcare provider deemed it necessary for you to have an ESA.

    Do ESA letters expire?

    There’s no definitive guideline in the HUD for expiring ESA letters. 

    Technically, they don’t expire. But if your letter is out of date, your property manager may have some doubts about whether the diagnosis is still valid.

    Not all property managers will question an old ESA letter. But to be safe, it’s a good habit to get your letter renewed at least once a year.

    However, you may not need to go through this process every year. For example, let’s say you’ve already made your request for reasonable accommodations to your property manager. You decide to live there for several years. During that time, you won’t need to renew your letter.

    But if you decide to move, you’ll need to make a new request for reasonable accommodations with a new landlord. In this case, it’s a good idea to be proactive and get your ESA renewed as soon as you think you’ll need it.

    Can landlords refuse to rent to pet owners? 

    When it comes to pets, property owners have the final say on pet policies.

    If they want to have a no-pets policy, it’s their prerogative. They can also decide to charge pet rent or pet fees. 

    Some landlords may allow some pets but have breed restrictions in place. 

    This means landlords can legally refuse to rent to pet owners.

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    But no matter what pet policies a property has in place, it only applies to pets. ESAs aren’t pets, so they don’t count.

    If you have other pets, know that a property manager could legally refuse to rent to you, even if you have an ESA. But in this case, they wouldn’t be refusing you for your ESA — they’d be refusing you because of your other pets. 

    When can a landlord legally reject an ESA? 

    In almost every circumstance, a landlord can't legally reject a request for reasonable accommodations for an emotional support animal. This is true even if your ESA is a breed that the property manager has restricted.

    However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. 

    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. But landlords have rights, too. Just like residents with ESAs deserve equal access to safe housing, so do the other residents of a building.

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    That’s why there are four exceptions in which a property manager may refuse a request for reasonable accommodations from someone with an ESA.

    They can refuse if they demonstrate that:

    • The request would cause a burden; for example, tons of administrative work or a financial investment
    • It would alter the essential nature of the property’s operations
    • The assistance animal would pose a health risk to other residents
    • The assistance animal could cause damage to the property

    In short, an ESA needs to be well-trained, well-behaved, and safe for all residents. It also needs to be appropriately sized for your housing unit.

    But they can’t refuse just because of your ESA’s breed unless they can prove without a doubt that this breed would cause a change in their insurance coverage.

    They may also reject an ESA if it’s not signed by a licensed medical professional. If you attempt to present an ESA letter signed by someone who isn’t licensed, this is ESA fraud.

    If you believe your ESA has been illegally rejected, consider filing a complaint with the HUD.

    Best practices to follow when you have an ESA

    If you want to improve your chances of always getting reasonable accommodations for housing, you can follow these best practices.

    First, make sure your ESA is well-behaved. Consider getting your ESA trained by a professional — you can share your attestation of training with your property manager to show they’ll be well-behaved. 

    You should also adopt responsible behavior like a regular pet owner. For instance, always pick up after your ESA and keep them on a leash when you leave your housing unit. 

    Be transparent about your ESA with your landlord, including any changes. For instance, if your ESA passes away, you should let your landlord know that you’ll be getting a new one soon. 

    Keep all your records safe so you can easily access them at any time. Make a digital copy of your ESA letter in case you lose the original. 

    What happens if a renter informs you about their ESA after signing the lease? 

    If you’re a property manager who has just been informed of a new renter’s ESA, you should ask to see their ESA letter. They’ll need to present it to you when they make a request for reasonable accommodations.

    This letter should be signed by a licensed medical provider. A valid letter will also include all the information about this medical provider, including contact information. 

    Don’t ask your renter for their medical records or information about their diagnosis. 

    Not sure how to screen ESA letters on your own? You can use PetScreening to verify reasonable accommodations requests!

    Know your rights as the owner of an ESA 

    If a licensed mental health professional has given you an ESA letter, that means you have the right to live with your ESA, even if you happen to live in a rental property that doesn’t allow pets. 

    Keep in mind that pets and emotional support animals don’t fall under the same category. As long as you’ve got your documentation, landlords can't legally discriminate against you or evict you because of your ESA.

    At PetScreening, we’re dedicated to making the world more pet inclusive. If you want to keep your ESA’s information in one place to make rental applications easier, sign up for PetScreening today or talk to your housing provider about us.