Friday, October 26, 2018

FHA: Housing Providers Required to Accommodate Service Animals

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Over the past few years, accommodations for service animals have become a much more prevalent issue in most industries, from housing to transportation. Where once service animals were only seen in very limited capacities, mainly as dogs serving people with visual or auditory disabilities, the definition of a service animal has expanded considerably. Now, there are a variety of animals filling those roles, including cats, parrots, ferrets, and even miniature horses, although none are quite as common as dogs. They serve people with all kinds of impairments, from deaf or blind people to people with PTSD or anxiety. These animals considerably improve the lives of the people they serve but are sometimes seen as problematic by store/restaurant owners and landlords. Fortunately, the Fair Housing Act has laid out a set of standards that can help property owners and property managers determine their legal responsibility in accommodating individuals with disabilities.

Most of the time, businesses and rental properties have broad, overarching policies like "No Pets," to ensure that the animals don't cause damage to the carpets or upholstery and to avoid driving away other customers due to issues of cleanliness or allergies. This can lead to an awkward situation for managers when an animal that appears to be a normal pet (or even an uncommon one) is actually a service animal. For example, there was a recent story in the news about a woman who was removed from her flight because she insisted on bringing her "emotional support squirrel." While the airline in that situation took issue specifically with the fact that it was a squirrel (not allowed on the plane because of its status as a "rodent"), the concept of "emotional support" animals, in general, has been contentiously debated. Emotional support animals don't have the same status under the law as service animals, which can lead to trouble.

Under the FHA, if a tenant has a clear disability, a property manager cannot legally ask for additional documentation. For example, if the applicant is clearly blind, they don't need to provide a letter from their doctor explaining why a guide dog is necessary. However, if the disability is not apparent, the housing provider can ask for documentation, which usually amounts to a letter from a physician, mental health professional, or social worker. Those rules apply to "service animals," which are specially trained from a young age and are bred to do a certain type of job. Because those animals are so well trained, property managers tend to feel more comfortable with being accommodating. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are something else entirely. An ESA can be any animal (usually the person's pet) that helps to treat emotional issues (usually depression or anxiety). The difference is that the animal doesn't usually require special training, and is only differentiated from a normal pet by a note from a doctor.

Even under the FHA's guidelines, a request for accommodation may be denied for several reasons, including if the animal poses a risk of harm to others or would pose an undue financial risk to the housing provider. Examples include if the animal has attacked people in the past, or if it causes health risks (like allergic reactions) for other tenants. From the perspective of a real estate professional, it can be uncomfortable to be in the middle of everything, where you don't actually have a say as to whether the request will be approved or not. All you can really do is support your client and make it clear to them that the housing provider has the final say.

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