By Daniel Bagliore
Your site may impose a no pets policy or limit the number of pets a tenant may keep in the apartment. However, from time to time, you may receive a request to allow a disabled tenant to keep one or more assistance animals despite your pet restrictions.
According to HUD (FHEO 2020-01), there are two types of assistance animals:
Housing communities are required to make reasonable accommodations, or exceptions, to policies and procedures that would enable a disabled individual the equal opportunity to use and enjoy the premises (which includes the apartment as well as public and common areas) unless doing so would represent an undue financial and administrative burden or would fundamentally alter the nature of the housing provider’s services.
Such exceptions may include allowing a disabled tenant to keep an assistance animal in their apartment despite the site’s no pet policy.
Requests for assistance animals are a very common type of reasonable accommodation requested by tenants and should be verified appropriately; such requests may be received prior to or during the tenancy.
When You Should—and Shouldn’t—Verify
When the disability is observable or otherwise known to the housing provider, and the need for the requested accommodation is readily apparent, no further verification is required—or permitted.
However, when the disability is not observable or known, or the need for the requested accommodation is not readily apparent, then the housing provider may pursue verification as applicable.
From time to time, tenants may provide a certificate purchased online that was purportedly issued by a registry to verify their assistance animal. However, this document by itself is not an acceptable form of verification as no national database or clearinghouse of assistance animals exists. In addition, according to HUD, there should be a professional relationship between the tenant/patient and verification source (usually a licensed health care provider such as a physician, psychiatrist, psychologist, optometrist, nurse, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, etc.).
Don’t Apply Pet Rules to Assistance Animals
Importantly, when evaluating such requests, keep in mind that assistance animals are not considered pets and your pet policies cannot be applied to assistance animals.
Therefore, communities cannot impose breed, size, weight, or other restrictions or assess any pet rent, fees, deposits, or other charges on assistance animals. In addition, although there is no defined limit on the number of assistance animals a tenant may maintain, at some point, an excessive number may become a health and safety concern and your fair housing attorney should be consulted.
When Tenant Requests More Than One Assistance Animal
When tenants request permission to keep multiple assistance animals in the apartment, the community should separately verify the disability-related need foreach individual animal with an appropriate health care provider when the need is not obvious (such as with emotional support animals).
Example: Your site allows tenants to have one pet (one dog or one cat). Your lease imposes breed and weight restrictions for dogs, specifically, no pit bulls or dogs weighing over 100 pounds are permitted. Your site charges a refundable pet deposit of $300 for dogs.
Your applicant, John Smith, is obviously disabled and uses a wheelchair due to a mobility impairment (no further verification is required) and has a 105-pound pit bull (named Scout) who pulls the wheelchair. As this dog is clearly a service animal, you allow the applicant to keep Scout as a reasonable accommodation and therefore waive the breed and weight restrictions as well as the pet deposit since this dog is not a pet.
Shortly after move-in, John asks permission to add two dogs—a poodle, Daisy, and another pit bull, Rover—and a cat, Morris. John tells you that Rover is a pet and not necessary to accommodate a disability, but that Daisy and Morris are emotional support animals.
Since the pit bull, Rover, is a pet, your site’s breed and weight restrictions apply and you deny this request due to breed.
Since the need for emotional support animals is not obvious, you attempt to verify the need for each animal separately (that is, one verification for the poodle and a separate verification for the cat) with an appropriate health care provider (in this case, a psychologist who has personal knowledge of John’s disability).
The psychologist confirms that Morris is needed as an emotional support animal, but states that Daisy is not necessary to accommodate a disability.
As such, you allow Morris the cat to remain because he is necessary to accommodate a disability. Since Morris is not considered a pet, no pet restrictions or deposits may be applied.
Although the psychologist confirmed that Daisy the poodle is not necessary to accommodate a disability, she may be considered a pet. Although John already has two animals in the apartment (a pit bull and a cat), he is not in violation of the lease since neither animal is considered a pet. Since Daisy the poodle meets the breed and weight restrictions, you can approve her as a pet and charge John the $300 pet deposit.
Keep in mind that assessing the need for any reasonable accommodation is a fact-specific inquiry and should be conducted on a case-by-case basis. Consulting your fair housing attorney is strongly recommended.