Emotional support animals are a big bone of contention with some landlords who really don’t want any pets on their properties. However, it’s important for landlords to understand that these animals are not considered pets, and are in fact protected by federal law.
An emotional support animal (ESA) is protected by the Fair Housing Act because the animal is intended to assist with a disability. Some landlords get confused because the Americans with Disability Act does not specifically address ESAs, but this doesn’t really matter to a landlord. Because landlords have to comply with the Fair Housing Act, which protects all people with disabilities, an ESA is considered a “reasonable accommodation” for someone with a disability, no different than allowing a tenant to install a wheelchair ramp.
What this means is that you don’t have a choice when it comes to ESAs. If someone has a legitimate disability and they are assisted with that disability by the ESA, then you have to allow the tenant and their ESA. Not only that, but you cannot charge a pet fee (again, it’s not a pet), pet rent, or other additional fees that you wouldn’t charge any other tenant who didn’t have an ESA.
Now, that said, there are important things to consider here. First, you have to be on the look-out for scammers. There are people out there who take advantage of this law that is intended to help people who legitimately need service animals. If you search online, you’ll find doctors of questionable ethics who will even sign a letter for a fee saying that someone needs an ESA, even though they’ve never personally examined the person they’re writing a letter for. In fact, the doctor could be in California while the person buying the letter is in Georgia.
For this reason, we utilize a three-prong test for ESAs:
1. Does the person have a disability?
2. Does the service animal assist them in some way with this disability?
3. Do they have documentation from a doctor who has examined them certifying the answers to the previous two questions?
If the answer is yes to all of the above, then the animal is legitimate, and the tenant is entitled to the service animal without paying any additional fees. If the person cannot produce documentation from their doctor, then we stop right there and tell the tenant that what they have is a pet and not an ESA, and they have to comply with all of the requirements that any other person would have to comply with for having a pet. In some cases, this means that they can’t rent a particular property at all, because the landlord doesn’t allow pets.
As a strong advocate of fair housing laws, and a company that strictly adheres to them and prides ourselves on doing so, we are always more than happy to accommodate ESAs when a tenant has a legitimate disability. But when someone is trying to scam the system, they are doing a disservice not only to us and our client, but also to all of the people out there who do have a legitimate need for a service animal. That won’t be tolerated by us.
If you’d like to hire a company that can worry about all of these legal issues for you, give us a call or send us a message. We’ll keep you out of trouble while you’re renting out your property.