Both Federal and California laws allow those suffering from a mental or physical disability to keep support animals. Support animals are different from service animals in that they are not trained to work or perform specific tasks. Instead, they ease the effects of an individual’s disability by providing comfort, support and routine. For example, a dog that is specially trained to detect and prevent an oncoming panic attack in their owner is most likely a service animal, while a dog that is not specially trained and provides only emotional comfort is a support animal. While these animals are not afforded the same protection as specially trained service animals, they are also not pets and cannot be treated as such. Support animals are most often dogs or cats but could be any animal that helps their owner cope with their disability. This article will explain the rules and regulations that Landlords need to be mindful of when presented with a Tenant who requires a support animal.
For the purposes of both California and Federal fair housing codes, and the Americans with Disability Act, a person with a disability is defined as anyone who: 1) has a mental or physical impairment that hinders one or more major life activities, 2) individuals who are regarded as having such an impairment, and 3) individuals who have records of such impairments. 42 U.S. Code § 12102. The term “physical or mental impairment” has been widely construed to include a host of conditions ranging from autism and depression to PTSD and, in some cases, addiction. The term disability is broadly defined under the law and applies to most individuals who have any condition that rises to the level of limiting one or more of their major life activities. Many disabilities are not readily apparent; however, landlords are entitled to request a statement from a healthcare professional that verifies that the tenant suffers from a disability.
Landlords are prohibited from discriminating against those with disabilities under the Federal Fair Housing Act (42 U.S.C. Sections 3601-3631) and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (Code Sections 12955-12956.2). These laws are far reaching, covering everyone from realtors, property managers, landlords, homeless shelters, and independent living homes. These provisions require that landlords and others covered by the acts make “reasonable accommodation” for those needing support animals. These reasonable accommodations include changes or exceptions to rules or policies to allow a person with a disability to enjoy the same access to housing as to those without disabilities. Most commonly, these exceptions entail waiving “no-pet” policies or waiving pet deposits or “pet rent” for those who require support animals. A landlord may not deny a tenant a support animal because of the type of animal, or the breed, size or weight of the animal. Landlords are also obligated to consider applications from prospective tenants who need support animals equally as those from applicants who do not have support animals. The take-away should be that a request by an existing or prospective tenant for accommodation of any support animal should be treated as a request for reasonable accommodation under the law.
While a landlord cannot deny a tenant a documented support animal, the landlord is within their rights to gather more information to verify the disability and documentation connected with the support animal when the tenant’s disability is not obvious (i.e. a blind or wheelchair-bound tenant should not be asked to submit such verification). The verification of disability is most commonly a letter or statement from a healthcare professional or case manager. Once such a statement has been provided, a landlord may not inquire further into the specifics of the disability and is not entitled to view medical records or get specific information concerning the scope or nature of the disability. When a prospective tenant voices their need for a support, a landlord should never immediately reject them due to a “no-pets” policy. Instead a landlord should provide them with the application and inform them of any information on the documentation needed for the support animal.
There are some circumstances in which landlords are not required to accommodate emotional support animals under the Fair Housing Act, however these are narrow exceptions. For example, if a landlord is renting a building that has 4 or fewer units, and the landlord occupies one of those units, the landlord can refuse to accommodate the support animal. In addition, if the accommodation is a single-family home that is being rented without a real estate broker, the landlord can refuse to accommodate a support animal. Finally, some state courts have held that when a support animal did unreasonable damage, even if the damage was not significant, that landlord could refuse to accommodate the animal. Woodside Village v. Hertzmark, FH-FL Rptr. ¶ 18,129 (Conn. Sup. Ct. 1993). However, this only held after the animal had damaged the property. In most circumstances, reasonable accommodation is required by law, and when presented with a tenant or prospective tenant in need of a support animals, landlords should make reasonable accommodations pursuant to the law.
The laws on support animals are ever-changing and each circumstance is different. We recommend consulting with a professional before making any decisions with regards to a support animal.