Clearing the Air On Companion Animals: What Property Managers Should Know

companion-animals

 

Know the rules when residents seek accommodation for emotional support or companion animals

While the multifamily housing industry has become pet friendly, some furry friends are catching the ire of property managers. Residents who attempt to bring their pets on property under the guise of them being companion animals are leaving some apartment operators fearing fair housing issues if they don’t comply.

In a spirited conversation recently on Property Management Insider’s LinkedIn group, some said it’s not worth the risk of legal action to fight a tenant who appears to be purposely abusing fair housing protections in order to avoid paying pet deposits, fees or skirt no-pet policies. Others disagreed, saying that if such situations are handled in accordance with the laws, properties can minimize the threat of a fair housing claim.

“It is important to ask the prospective resident what type of service the animal provides” said Billy Rosenberg, President of Infinity Residential Inc. “If the only service provided is companionship without any additional medical services, the application for request of a service animal can be denied and fees/deposits can be administered.”

Companion or emotional support animals fall within the definition of assistance animals under the Housing and Urban Development’s guidelines, “Service Animals and Assistance Animals for People with Disabilities in Housing and HUD-Funded Programs.” While service animals are generally animals that work and provide disability-related functions (such as guiding persons with vision impairments) other animals can be considered to assist somebody who has a mental or psychological disability by providing emotional support and companionship to help alleviate the symptoms of the disability.

Neither type of assistance animal is required by law to be specially trained, and reliable verification of disability and disability-related need for an assistance animal (unless both are readily apparent or known to the provider) is proof enough. By law, housing providers cannot charge extra deposits, fees, impose type, size or breed restrictions or prohibit the animal from living on premises, even if a “no-pet” policy is in place.

When confronted by a resident who doesn’t appear to have a disability but wants accommodation, legal experts say know and follow the HUD guidelines.

Some residents are trying to get around no-pet regulations

Lynn Dover, an attorney for Kimball, Tirey & St. John who specializes in fair housing law, said companion animals are getting a lot of attention these days. She and the firm have handled a number of complaints from property managers wanting to know what they should do when a resident says his or her pet is a companion or emotional support animal − and may even provide documentation − but it appears the animal is a pet.

“We get a lot calls from owners and managers about people who appear to be using the laws to get around the no-pet rules or the restrictions on the type, size or breed of pets that they are allowed to have, or to get around paying a security deposit or pet rent,” Dover said. “The difficulty is if they provide verification of the disability and disability-related need for the animal, there isn’t much the housing provider can do without subjecting themselves to potential liability.”

[Additional Recommended Reading: 23 States With Fake Service Dog Laws]

But landlords can cover themselves and put the onus back on the resident.

She reminds that residents must make a request for a reasonable accommodation and housing providers cannot ask the nature of the resident’s disability. Verification that the resident has a disability and that the animal is related to and needed because of the disability, unless both are readily apparent, can be requested. She also said that a certificate or other document indicating the animal is a registered service or emotional support animal isn’t enough because these documents can be acquired on the internet without any proof of disability or disability-related need for an assistance animal.

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Assistance animals can be held to conduct standards

Dover said it’s okay for housing providers to set reasonable rules of conduct that residents with assistance animals must follow, but the rules cannot always be as restrictive  as some of the normal “house” pet guidelines (for example, residents with assistance animals must have access to all common areas, etc.). If the animal poses a threat to the health or safety of others or damages property, the resident can be held to the same standards as any pet, according to HUD. However, breed, size, and weight limitations may not be applied.

“We recommend having separate rules of conduct, rather than using pet rules,” Dover said. “The reason is that there are often things in the pet rules that wouldn’t be appropriate for assistance animals. Pet rules usually talk about pet deposits, pet rent, restrictions on type, size and breed and restrictions on where a person can take their pets in the common areas.”

Pet rules may not permit a pet in a community room or the pool area but someone with an assistance (including a companion animal) would need to be allowed to bring the animal with them. The animal probably wouldn’t be allowed in the pool, but the pool area is fine, Dover said.

When asked about the most common issues her firm sees regarding assistance animal rule violations, Dover said, “We see people not picking up after their animals, or not keeping them on a leash or other restraint when they’re outside of the unit, letting them run free in the common areas. Those types of things are fairly common.”

Property managers have a remedy when assistance animal owners don’t follow rules

Property managers can take action against residents who violate the assistance animal rules but should do so with a little extra care, Dover said. For example, warning letters recognizing that the animal is an assistance animal, but reminding the resident that they still must follow reasonable rules of conduct, should generally be issued, rather than serving a legal notice that might be used in the case of a pet rules violation. The landlord can state that if the problem persists, the animal may have to be removed.

One exception might be that if an animal has attacked a person or other animal on the property, it may need to be removed immediately to avoid potential liability issues. In any event, the landlord should state that if removal of the animal is required, alternative accommodations will be explored. That, Dover said, can include a request to replace the animal with another.

“If one particular dog barks all the time and disturbs other residents and they can get a different dog that doesn’t have that trait, then that might be a reasonable alternative,” she said. “Similarly if they have a dog showing aggressive behavior, then they may need to replace it with one that doesn’t have aggressive behavior. On the other hand, if the resident isn’t keeping a dog leashed or isn’t picking up after it, allowing them to get a different dog won’t solve the problem. The resident may have to look at getting a different type of animal that can be kept indoors, such as a cat, bird or other animal.” said Dover.

“Trained assistance animals, such as guide or alert animals, usually aren’t the ones that create the problems. It’s more often the companion animals,” said Dover.

When it comes to assistance animals, property managers should know the rules and shouldn’t just roll over. And when in doubt, reach out to a legal beagle.

 


Contributing Editor, Property Management Insider
President, Ballpark Impressions, LLC

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Tim Blackwell is a long-time publishing and printing executive in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who writes about the multifamily housing and transportation industries. He has contributed numerous articles to Property Management Insider, and worked as a newspaper reporter in the D/FW area. Blackwell is president of Ballpark Impressions, and publishes the Cowcatcher Magazine. He is a member of the Fort Worth Chapter/Society of Professional Journalists.

3 responses to “Clearing the Air On Companion Animals: What Property Managers Should Know”

  1. Anna Carina says:

    Seriously though. If you pay a deposit you should be able to have a pet in your house. Cat’s or even small dogs can’t do more harm to the property than humans and if they do, YOU HAVE THE DEPOSIT!

    • Vicki says:

      We accept dogs and cats in most of our rental units, with good results. But your response indicates a misunderstanding of the risk to landlords. Humans don’t (usually) pee on the floor or gnaw on woodwork or scratch carpet til it’s bare. Small dogs and cats are not less harmful than large dogs. Landlords almost never collect a security deposit for pets as large as the deposit for humans. Perhaps they should. Seriously.

    • Steven Visek says:

      In my state(PA), a pet deposit legally is no different than a regular security deposit. After one year, any deposit in excess of one month’s rent must be returned to the tenant. So unless they only stay one year, a pet deposit is worthless here.

      I have two dogs at my house. They provide me great emotional support. However, I do not have a medical condition that necessitates an ESA, same as probably 90%+ of the people who have an ESA. Like them, I could easily get my doctor to write me a prescription for an ESA if I wanted. I have found it to be a huge loophole, abused by folks who just want a pet.

      I have never had a tenant try to have one, but if so I would make a reasonable accommodation. But reasonable accommodation does not mean simply agreeing to whatever the tenant wants. I would allow up to two animals in the unit(my leases do not use the term “pet”) and charge a 5% monthly “animal premium.” The condo association allows pets, but not dogs, but there are still a few folks who play the ESA game. I would allow any animal that is not dangerous, is not noise-making, and does not intrude on the other residents in any way. They would have to apply in advance, provide the appropriate documentation, and sign a statement understanding that the first violation gets them a warning, the second one gets a fine, and the third violation means the approval is revoked ad that animal is now banned and must be removed immediately.

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