The Landlord’s Guide to Assistance Animals at Rental Properties

By Jennifer Bajema | Property Management Tips

Nov 27
The Landlords Guide to Assistance Animals at Rental Properties

Let us start off by saying that here at Access, we love our animals. Between the team, we have pets for companionship, food, hunting, and have even fostered service dogs! When it comes to rentals, assistance animals and pets, there is a lot of misinformation out there.  There are several sets of laws, lots of ambiguity and plenty of people taking advantage of this chaos. Unfortunately this casts service animals, ESA’s and pets in a negative light. The purpose of this post is to help landlords and investors better understand the relationship between assistance animals in rental properties and the law.

Disclaimer: This blog post is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.

The Different Types of Assistance Animals

Because there are so many different types of assistance animals, the best way to start off is to define them:

Service Animal

First, we will start with the animal that has the most amount of rights. A service animal can be either a dog or more recently a miniature horse. This is how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal: “Service animals are defined as dogs [or miniature horses] that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.”  Service animals are usually trained through organizations like Paws With A Cause®  or Leader Dog. Both the ADA and Fair housing Act protect service animals.

Emotional Support Animals

Second, let’s talk about the animal that has provided the most amount of controversy and…variety. There are TON of news stories regarding these comfort creatures. You will find stories like a sorority not accepting a rabbit, guinea pigs in dorms, and a duck on a plane. A legal definition does not exist to govern an Emotional Support Animal. So there are no rules regarding the animal’s breed, type, demeanor, training or size. This is why you have people with peacocks, snakes, and turkeys as ESA’s. Emotional Support animals are covered under the Fair Housing Act. 

It’s important to note that when it comes to rental housing, an emotional support animal has the same rights as a service animal. 

Therapy Animal

Next we will describe therapy animals. These animals are trained to provide support to people other than their handler. Therapy animals are usually trained through an organization like West Michigan Therapy Dogs, Inc. While they are usually well behaved, highly trained and socialized animals, they are not protected under the ADA or Fair Housing laws. 

Pets

Finally, we get to the animals that most people can relate to…pets! Although you may consider your pet to be a member of the family, they do not have the same rights as a human. To define a pet: any animal that isn’t a service or emotional support animal. Pets are not covered under neither the ADA nor Fair Housing Laws (with the exception in the next paragraph).

A landlord can choose to allow or not allow a pet. They can choose certain types, sizes, or breeds of pets to allow or reject. However, you must treat every applicant the same during the entire leasing period. So if a landlord allows dogs and cats during one leasing period, they can choose to change their pet policy the next time the rental becomes available, but not during the same rental period.

If your unsure about pets at your rental, we have this great post that specifically covers Weighing the Pro’s and Cons of Allowing Pets at Your Rental.

What Laws Cover Assistance Animals in Rental Properties?

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA is specifically for government services, and public and commercial facilities. This act says that these entities must (generally) permit service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where the public is allowed to go. It gives some other regulations about service animals, but this is not the act that applies specifically to rental units. The ADA does NOT cover comfort or emotional support animals (ESA). The full text of the ADA is online at ADA.gov but you can read a summary of the Service Animal portion of the ADA here. 

Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act is the act to pay attention to in relation to rental housing. The whole act is extremely important to understand when you are a landlord, but only a part of it applies to assistance animals. The purpose of the Fair housing act is to protect people from discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, gender, familial status and disability. In this post we will talk specifically about how it governs the protection of disabled people and assistance animals. 

Fair Housing and Animals

The fair housing act requires landlord to allow reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability. In the case of an assistance animal, the animal is not considered a “pet”. A landlord MUST allow a service or emotional support animal in a rental unit and cannot charge a pet deposit or pet rent for the pet. Under this act, service animals AND emotional support animals have the same rights. One thing to note is the tenant still has certain responsibilities in regards to the animal.

In order for an applicant to have a reasonable accommodation, they must do the following:

  • Provide a note from doctor stating that the person has a disability and the animal is needed to help with this disability.
  • Still follow the pet policy.
    • The animal must still be vaccinated, spayed or neutered and adhere to other cleanliness rules.
  • Pay for pet damages at the end of the lease period

Under this Act a person with an assistant animal may not be charged:

  • Pet application fees
  • Pet deposits
  • Pet rent

Reasonable Accommodation Under the Fair Housing Act

The government sees allowing service and emotional support animals and not charging pet fees as reasonable accommodation for a disabled person. The following may also be considered as a reasonable accommodations under the act:

  • Allowing an animal in a “No Pet” unit.
  • Allowing a breed of dog that would normally be rejected (many guide dogs are German Shepards) 
  • Installing a poop bag dispenser

Not all requests are reasonable! Allowing an emotional support horse is NOT a reasonable accommodation in an apartment unit, but may be on a house with land and a barn! If you have any questions about whether a request is reasonable or not, make sure you reach out to your attorney quickly and early. You may not intentionally be discriminating, but a person covered under the fair housing act could see it as so.

To Wrap it Up

These are important things to know when you are a landlord dealing with assistance animals at your rental properties. As an investor or landlord, you cannot be ignorant. Know the law and make sure you have your screening process down! Don’t be accused of discrimination or be taken advantage of by someone. At Access, we have had many emotional support animals in our units without any issues. Don’t let this deter you from your success as a real estate investor.

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About the Author

Jennifer Bajema is the Co-founder of Access Property Management Group. She has worked in every part of the company, but now focuses on client education and business growth. Her experience in running a property management business is now over 10 years!

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