Making all the right decisions when it comes to emotional support animals (ESAs) can be challenging for both tenants and landlords alike. While the laws surrounding ESAs are designed to provide necessary support to individuals with various disabilities, misunderstandings and missteps can occur between landlords and tenants.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the most common mistakes that landlords tend to make when handling ESA requests, as well as guidance on how to avoid these pitfalls.
What is an Emotional Support Animal?
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are domestic animals that can provide both comfort and support to their human companions. Many individuals who live with developmental disorders or mental health conditions benefit from the presence of ESAs as spending time with these animals can help manage their symptoms.
Emotional Support Animals VS Service Animals
Understanding the key differences between emotional support animals and service animals is important for landlords and tenants alike. While both animal types provide valuable support to individuals with disabilities, they serve different purposes and have different legal protections.
A service animal is specially trained to perform specific tasks that assist individuals with disabilities. These tasks directly relate to the individual’s disability, and the training the animal undergoes is designed to mitigate the effects of the disability in question. Service animals are typically dogs, but other animals can also be registered as service animals. A service animal might guide an individual who is blind, alert individuals who are deaf, or alert someone with epilepsy when a seizure may be coming.
On the other hand, an ESA provides comfort, companionship, and therapeutic support to individuals with mental or developmental disabilities. Unlike service animals, ESAs do not require specific training to perform assistive tasks, but their presence helps to alleviate symptoms that are associated with the individual’s disability.
While an ESA does not have the same level of training as a service animal and isn’t granted public access rights like service animals are, they are protected under the Fair Housing Act. This act allows individuals with disabilities to live with their ESAs in housing that otherwise prohibits pets.
3 Mistakes Landlords Make with ESA Requests
It can be difficult to navigate ESA landscape, and because of this, landlords may make mistakes when it comes to dealing with emotional support animal requests. However, because these mistakes can lead to legal repercussions, it’s important to be aware of them. This way, landlords can approach ESA requests legally and responsibly, creating positive landlord-tenant relationships in the process.
Let’s review three of the most common mistakes made concerning ESA requests.
1- Treating Emotional Support Animals as Pets
It’s essential for landlords to realize that ESAs are not pets, nor should they be treated as such. They may look like run-the-mill household pets, but legally, they’re considered to be living assistive devices. They do perform some of the same duties as pets, but medical professionals recommend them to disabled patients to aid them in their disability management.
Because landlords often see an ESA as a pet, they might try to deny their tenant’s request to have one of these animals live with them if the unit is designated as pet-free. In other situations, the landlord might allow the ESA, but charge the tenant pet rent or a pet deposit. According to the Fair Housing Act, all of these behaviors are illegal in most cases. Landlords cannot deny tenants access to an emotional support animal as a part of the property’s pet policy, and because these animals are not technically pets, pet rents and pet deposits are prohibited.
Landlords are allowed to deduct damages caused by an ESA from a tenant’s security deposit, though, and they are allowed to pursue legal means to remove an ESA if the animal proves to be a danger or significant nuisance to other tenants. They simply can’t handle ESA-related situations the same way they would with a normal pet.
2- Requesting the Wrong Documentation
It’s not uncommon for landlords to ask for some form of documentation when it comes to emotional support animal requests. However, landlords who are relatively inexperienced with these requests tend to request either excessive or unnecessary documentation from their tenants. While landlords are entitled to request documentation that verifies the need for an ESA, such as a letter from a licensed healthcare professional, they cannot require specific forms or call for additional requirements that go beyond what the law allows.
This means that landlords cannot require medical records that note the nature and severity of a tenant’s disability. They’re also not allowed to ask for documentation that an emotional support animal has been trained to provide a service.
Landlords should familiarize themselves with the requirements outlined in the FHA and refrain from imposing burdensome documentation requirements on tenants.
3- Denying Requests without a Valid Reason
At times, landlords will deny an ESA request without a valid reason for doing so, such as claiming that the property has a no-pet policy or expressing personal biases against the tenant’s animal. However, according to the Fair Housing Act, landlords are required to provide reasonable accommodations for their tenants. In many situations, these accommodations include approving an ESA request. Denying a tenant’s request for an emotional support animal without a valid reason to do so can expose landlords to legal liabilities and discrimination claims.
It’s worth noting, though, that there are some circumstances in which a landlord can reasonably deny a tenant’s ESA request, for example, if the tenant cannot provide any sort of documentation or the animal has proven to be a danger to other tenants. It’s important for landlords to be aware of their rights and obligations when it comes to support animals so that they can stay on the right side of the law.
Handling emotional support animal requests requires landlords to navigate complex legal and ethical considerations. By understanding their legal obligations, landlords can effectively fulfill their responsibilities while also supporting tenants with disabilities. By avoiding common mistakes and approaching ESA requests with empathy and understanding, landlords can create a welcoming and inclusive housing environment for all tenants.