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Can Landlords Deny Emotional Support Animals in Virginia?

In the past few years, there has been an increasing amount of awareness and recognition of the importance of emotional support animals (ESAs). These animals have proven incredibly valuable when it comes to providing comfort and assistance to individuals with mental health conditions. However, the question of whether landlords in Virginia can deny tenants to keep an ESA in their rented unit remains a contentious issue. 

In this article, we’ll take a look at the complexities surrounding this topic and explore the legal landscape that governs the rights of both landlords and tenants.

Understanding Emotional Support Animals

Before exploring the legality of ESA denial, it’s crucial for landlords to understand what exactly counts as an emotional support animal. Unlike service animals, which are specially trained to perform specific tasks for individuals with disabilities, emotional support animals aim to provide therapeutic support through their companionship, affection, and their ability to alleviate symptoms associated with mental health disorders.

These animals are typically prescribed to a person living with anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other health conditions, by a medical professional.

It’s worth noting that the laws surrounding service animals may not be the same as those that concern emotional support animals. As a landlord, it’s important to be aware of the differences between the way state laws address each assistive animal type.

The Fair Housing Act and ESAs

The legal framework surrounding the denial of ESA requests in rental properties includes the application of several federal laws, including the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). When a landlord is subject to the Fair Housing Act, he or she is required to make reasonable accommodations for tenants who live with disabilities, including allowing ESAs in the housing units.

This is so regardless of what the landlord’s pet policy is, being that emotional support animals are not viewed as pets according to the law. This means that landlords cannot discriminate against tenants based on their disability status or whether they need an emotional support animal to help them manage their health conditions.

However, the Fair Housing Act does not apply to all rental properties in Virginia. There are several conditions a landlord can meet that make it so that they’re not subject to the FHA and do not have to approve a tenant’s emotional support animal request. 

When Can Landlords Deny an ESA Request?

Several situations exist that may allow a Virginia landlord to deny a tenant’s request to keep an emotional support animal in their rental unit. 

For starters, a landlord can reject an ESA request if the animal in question would be a direct threat to the health and/or safety of others by being in the unit. However, landlords cannot simply make this claim. He or she has to present actual proof that the animal’s presence is a health or safety risk. 

Landlords can also deny a tenant’s request for an emotional support animal if the animal has caused substantial damage to the property. The same can be said if the animal has been shown to exhibit aggression towards other tenants.

If the request for accommodations goes beyond the realm of what’s reasonable, a landlord can deny ESA requests as well. For example, if a tenant requests permission to keep a horse in an apartment building, the landlord does not have to grant the ESA request.

Finally, landlords can also reject an ESA request if the tenant’s letter from a medical professional isn’t valid. The letter should be signed by a licensed healthcare provider and include information that states the individual’s need for an ESA.

Landlord Allowances

Landlords who are not subject to the Fair Housing Act can also deny a tenant’s request to keep an emotional support animal in their rented unit. Under these conditions, a landlord is considered exempt from the guidelines surrounding ESAs.

  • Landlords who occupy a unit within a rental building that contains four units or fewer are exempt from ESA guidelines.
  • Landlords who own three rental properties or fewer are exempt from ESA guidelines.
  • Landlords who rent a single-family home without the use of a broker may be exempt from ESA guidelines.

That said, many landlords who fall under these categories may still approve a tenant’s ESA request with a valid letter from a medical professional. Though they are not required to accept ESA requests in these scenarios, many choose to approve requests anyway in an effort to establish and maintain positive landlord-tenant relationships.

Special ESA Considerations

When a landlord is subject to the FHA and needs to accommodate a tenant’s request for an emotional support animal, there are several considerations that he or she must keep in mind. In order to remain on the right side of the law, landlords need to follow these guidelines when it comes to emotional support animals.

  • Landlords are not permitted to require emotional support animals to be registered with any governing body, as the law does not call for registration or certification for an animal to be considered an ESA.
  • Landlords cannot ask tenants for extensive medical information, nor can they inquire about the nature and severity of the tenant’s disability. They are, however, allowed to require a valid letter written by a medical professional that states the individual’s need for an ESA.
  • Landlords are not allowed to charge pet rent or pet deposits for emotional support animals. Even on properties where other tenants have to pay these fees to keep their pets, the same fees do not apply to ESAs. Because an ESA is not considered a pet, the tenant does not have to adhere to standard pet protocols.

Though landlords generally cannot deny tenants with disabilities the right to keep an emotional support animal in their rented property, there are exceptions and considerations to be aware of. Understanding the legal framework surrounding ESAs and the rights of both landlords and tenants is essential when it comes to fostering a fair and inclusive housing environment.

By navigating these complexities with empathy, respect, and adherence to the law, landlords can ensure that individuals with disabilities have equal access to housing and the support they need.

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