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Understanding Landlord Obligations for Service Animals

December 4, 2022

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What Are A Landlord’s Obligations For Service Animals?

When it comes to animals in rental units, landlords have different policies. 

Some landlords have no-pet policies, others have strict limits on what pets they’ll allow, and others allow most kinds of animals.  

A service animal, however, isn’t considered a pet by law. This can be a tricky situation for some landlords because you cannot deny housing to a disabled tenant with a service animal. 

So, what do you do when an applicant or tenant claims to have a medical need for an animal?  

As a landlord, you need to understand the laws surrounding service animals and what that means for your business. 

What is a Service Animal? 

Per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is a dog trained to assist a disabled owner. The tasks performed by the dog need to relate directly to the owner’s disability.  

The ADA provides these examples: 

  • A person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to warn her when her blood sugar is low. 
  • A person with depression may have a dog that is trained to remind him to take his medication. 
  • A person who experiences epilepsy may have a dog that is trained to spot the onset of a seizure and then make sure the person is safe during the seizure. 
  • A blind person may have a seeing eye or guide dog. 
  • A deaf person may rely on a dog to alert them to noises. 

Training and certification differentiate a service animal from a regular pet. A service animal in training receives extensive teaching from experts. Every service animal owner must have identification papers. Typically, the animal will also wear an identification collar or harness.  

In certain rare instances, miniature horses can also be considered service animals. But, in most cases, dogs are the only animals that qualify. 

Service Animals and Your Rental 

By law, you must allow service animals in your rental property if the applicant qualifies for reasonable accommodation and has a verifiable need for an assistance animal. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) guidance on service animals for property managers with rental properties includes the following key guidelines: 

  • Service animals aren’t considered pets, so your pet policy doesn’t apply to them. 
  • Service animals are allowed wherever a person may go, including restricted animal areas like restaurants. 
  • Landlords cannot collect a pet deposit or charge a pet fee to persons with a service animal. 
  • Landlords cannot enforce weight limits or breed restrictions regarding service animals. 
  • Landlords may require written verification from the tenant’s healthcare provider that they’re disabled but cannot ask for specific details about the disability. 
  • Landlords may require written verification from the tenant’s healthcare provider that the service animal is medically necessary. 
  • Landlords may write warnings or even evict a tenant if their animal is disturbing others, posing a threat to others, or causing considerable damage to the property. 
  • Landlords may charge a tenant for any property damage an animal causes on the property. 
  • Landlords may request copies of the animal’s health records to prove the animal is in good health, parasite-free, and vaccinated. 

Legal Rights for Tenants with Service Animals 

As a landlord, you want to avoid issues with the law.  

A tenant may request reasonable accommodations for a service animal to live on your property. But what constitutes reasonable accommodations? 

According to the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the ADA, a tenant qualifies for reasonable accommodations related to disabilities if these conditions are present: 

  1. They have a physical or mental impairment that significantly restricts one or more major life activities like walking, working, or cleaning. 
  1. They have a history of impairments. 
  1. They are regarded as having these impairments. 

Additionally, landlords cannot ask for many details regarding a person’s disability. This protection of privacy helps people with disabilities get fair housing opportunities. 

Exclusions 

At this point, you’re probably wanting to know the answer to the question: Can service animals be denied? The answer is that there are certain instances where landlords can deny service animals, but you still risk a court appearance if you’re not careful. Consult with a lawyer before you deny a service animal. Let’s review some reasons you might be able to reject disabled owners and their animals: 

  • The tenant isn’t legally disabled or can’t produce written proof from a doctor. 
  • The tenant won’t take responsibility for the service animal. For example, someone who never cleans up waste, lets the animal roam anywhere and everywhere, or doesn’t take care of noise issues. 
  • The service animal isn’t prescribed for the specific treatment related to the tenant’s disability. 
  • The service animal would cause too many issues. For example, trying to put a miniature horse in an apartment on an upper floor. 
  • The service animal is illegal or not allowed by state law.  
  • The service animal is a direct threat to other people’s safety. 
  • The service animal causes a financial burden for the landlord. 
  • The service animal’s presence completely interferes with your business operations. 

Every one of these situations has had at least one court case that sided with the landlord. That said, you should approach this with extreme caution. Make sure you talk to a law expert and assess the situation before giving out warnings or initiating eviction. You don’t want to violate anyone’s rights or end up in circumstances that cost you valuable time and money without doing your research. 

Conclusion 

Service animals can cause headaches for landlords. That’s why it’s of the utmost importance to know your rights and understand what you owe tenants with disabilities. You want to be as accommodating as possible within reason. Every landlord wants great relationships with tenants. 

However, don’t allow tenants to abuse your goodwill. Doing your research and consulting with lawyers can ensure you treat people fairly and protect your business. Service animals are wonderful, and you must let tenants with disabilities have them, but understanding the limits of what is required of you is key to your business. 

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