By Becky Bower
The term “emotional support animal” has always produced mixed opinions, with some property managers claiming that it’s a loophole term to get applicants’ pets accepted, while others cite federal law concerning tenants with disabilities. Whether your pet policy attracts applicants out of the 79 million households that own cats and dogs or prohibits residents from having their own big red dog, California property managers might be required to allow tenants to have emotional support animals, regardless of their pet policy.
What are the Differences between Service Dogs, Psychiatric Service Dogs, and Emotional Support Animals?
Service animals are animals that are trained to help a specific individual with a disability. Some states, like California, limit service animals to dogs (and in some cases, miniature horses as well). Psychiatric service dogs are individually trained to help a person with a mental disability. Both of these service animals are trained to aid someone with a disability, whether it be pulling a wheelchair or responding to the owner’s panic attack. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, can be any type of animal and are not trained to perform a specific act that relates to an individual’s disability. These types of animals give their owners emotional relief, rather than physical relief, and unlike most service dogs, they do not need to wear any form of identification (like a vest or harness).
In compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires housing providers to provide reasonable accommodation to tenants with disabilities, allowing them to “request a reasonable accommodation for any assistance animal, including an emotional support animal.” Federally funded housing (like Section 8 housing) is required to accept emotional support animals without proof. That being said, legally, you may not request to show proof that the animal has any specialized training. This means, if a resident with a disability requests for reasonable accommodation and provides a letter legitimatizing the need for an emotional support animal, under the FHA, you legally must provide reasonable accommodation for their support animal regardless of your rental policy on pets. If you deny their request for reasonable accommodation, the resident can file a discrimination complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Potential Legislation could require the Admittance of All Emotional Support Animals in California
Currently, it is within a property owner’s right to disallow pets on the property, and deny applicants (who are not covered under the ADA) based off of those written rental requirements. However, according to Ron Kingston of East Bay’s Rental Housing Association, that might change. Their online magazine, Rental Housing (issue Dec. 2016, page 22), illuminates that California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is currently proposing “broad new regulations requiring rental property owners to allow tenants to have ‘emotional support animals’ of all breeds and types to live with them in their units.” While (as said above) federal regulations require residents to request reasonable accommodations for support animals, Ron Kingston argues that the DFEH’s proposal is too broad and gives property managers limited authority to “deny a support animal request when the animal poses a threat to health and safety of other tenants, and to the property.”
As the transportation industry has enabled service and emotional support animals to fly on airlines for free and an increase in emotional support animals on airlines has been present, the validity of emotional support animals has come into question. Brian Skewis, California State Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind executive officer, has previously stated that he has found a “misuse” of the service dog law in airports. While Sacramento International Airport spokesman, Mark Haneke, has said that he is not aware of a false service dog problem, it puts into question whether or not significant misuse could be present in rentals.
Big cities like Los Angeles (which has the highest percentage of renters) have been facing a pet-housing shortage for a long time. Early last year, the City of Los Angeles even stated that they’ll start creating pet-friendly housing legislation to combat the 22.6% of dogs and 18.6% of cats that are surrendered to animal shelters due to pet restrictions. While no legislation has been passed since this statement, with misuse, the DFEH’s proposition could inadvertently cause rentals to become pet-friendly to avoid a discrimination case.
Although the California proposition has yet to be released in full detail (be sure to subscribe for updates), its broad nature would limit Californian property owner’s rights. While it might positively affect the pet-housing shortage in large cities, federal regulations already protect the resident’s right to request reasonable accommodation that allows emotional support animals. If these rights are already protected, the big question is what does this law really do?
Regardless of whether your community is pet-friendly or has a strict no-pet policy, make sure your online application has space to provide additional information (like about service animals or pets) and that you perform thorough screening of all your applicants. Just because an applicant doesn’t come with a furry friend in tow, doesn’t mean they’re a perfect fit for your community.
|Becky Bower is a writer for the ApplyConnect® Blog and the communications executive at ApplyConnect®, a consumer initiated tenant screening company. She has also spent several years in compliance and auditing. Becky holds a degree in English with a focus in creative writing from CSU Channel Islands and is a published writer.