If the topic were cut and dried, it would be much easier for property teams. That is not the case with assistance animal accommodation requests, however. They are filled with nuances that can make them very challenging to the untrained eye—and sometimes even to those experienced on the topic.
To help make sense of the many rules and regulations, industry experts held an in-depth examination of HUD's most recent notice on assistance animals, the rise of assistance animal fraud and tactics for risk management in the recent PetScreening webinar Fair Housing and Beyond: The Many Challenges of Assistance Animal Accommodation Requests.
For starters, teams must be aware of the distinction between service and support animals. A service animal—such as a seeing eye dog or guide dog—is individually trained to perform a task for the benefit of an individual with a disability. A support animal, such as an emotional support animal (ESA), helps to alleviate symptoms of a mental or emotional disability by providing companionship and support. In either case, an apartment resident must make an accommodation request to the property.
"There are two basic issues to consider with the accommodation request," said Brad Morris, chief legal counsel for PetScreening. "Does the person seeking the accommodation have a disability? And is there a disability-related need for the animal? Those two questions will drive whether the accommodation will be granted."
Nuances exist within the specific type of request. If a resident has an observable disability—picture someone wearing sunglasses, carrying a red-tipped cane and clearly using a harnessed dog to help them move about—no further inquiry is needed because the disability has been established. In this case, it's a legitimate service animal because it clearly assists with an observable disability. But it's different if an individual is in a wheelchair with a chihuahua in their lap. They have an observable disability but not an observable need for the animal, so further inquiry is permitted.
"There's a two-part question in this case to determine if it's a service animal," Morris said. "We would ask the person in the wheelchair, is this animal needed because of a disability? And if the answer is yes, it would generate the second question: what work or task has this animal been trained to perform?"
In cases of a support animal when a disability is not readily observable, property teams are permitted to ask questions about the nature of the disability, how the animal helps alleviate it and request documentation as part of the process.
The HUD Guidelines, last updated in January 2020, also outline unique vs. domesticated animals. Beyond dogs and cats, domesticated animals include small birds, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, rodents, fish, turtles and select additional small animals. These all can all qualify as support animals - like an ESA.
"The notice specifically calls out monkeys, kangaroos and other non-domesticated animals and says they should not be considered household animals," said Stephanie Thornberg, vice president of risk compliance and insurance for Avenue 5 Residential. "So, if someone shows up trying to move in with their ESA kangaroo, you can pause and ask for more documentation on that."
The HUD notice also outlines unique animals that may serve an assistance-related need. For instance, an individual might find comfort in a snake, which is uncommon. Property teams can request more documentation that indicates an assistance-related need specifically for that type of unique animal versus a domesticated animal.
As one might imagine, reasonable accommodation requests for assistance animals contain their fair share of fraud. Residents trying either to escape pet rent and fees—or attempting to work around a community's breed or weight restrictions—often fraudulently attempt to pass off their pets as assistance animals. It can lead to awkward moments when property teams believe the purported assistance animal is actually a pet.
Eric Bronstein, co-founder and executive vice president of student-housing provider The Scion Group, discussed what often happens when his properties discover that a resident has an animal in their home.
"We don't start out by presuming that it's an assistance animal—just that it's an animal," he said. "We'll contact the resident with something of a gentle notice that's not a threat of eviction. A lot of times those residents will claim, for the first time, that it's a service animal or ESA. Most people don't know the difference between a service animal and ESA—it's hard enough for us to keep track of—and they'll use the terms interchangeably."
At that point, The Scion Group's property team will provide the resident with the needed steps to make an assistance animal accommodation request and proceed from there. "We have to have our radar up for when there's a potential reasonable accommodation request under the Fair Housing Act," Bronstein said.
The panel also discussed risk mitigation tactics for operators, including bite complaint preparation and HUD complaint preparation, in which using correct processes and proper verbiage is key. Operators can also team with third-party services to help manage their assistance animal processes and remove the onus from onsite teams.
While assistance animals are a complicated topic in multifamily, property teams can start by being readily able to define the difference between service and support animals—and what those distinctions mean for the industry.
"Essentially, with service animals you can ask two questions," said Victoria Cowart, director of education and outreach for PetScreening. "With support animals, you can delve deeper, and it includes the ability to request for documentation pertaining to a dog trained for service for the disabled. That's unless you're in California, where 'support' could pertain to other trained or untrained animals that qualify as an ESA."
When navigating through reasonable accommodation requests, a thorough understanding of the topic helps to eliminate ambiguity and serves as a solid place to start. To watch the entire webinar, click here.