Latest Update: January 2020 to reflect updated HUD Guidance on Emotional Support Animals
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination against tenants with disabilities. Under the FHA, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities. Many tenants with a mental illness or emotional distress issues have Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) that provide relief from the symptoms of their disability. Under the FHA, landlords must reasonably accommodate tenants with valid ESAs, even if the building has a no-pets policy or other restrictions on pets.
If you are considering qualifying for an ESA or already have an ESA, this article is about your rights as a tenant under the Fair Housing Act. An animal companion qualifies as an ESA through a recommendation letter provided by a licensed health care professional. If you are having trouble finding a therapist and are looking to connect with a licensed professional familiar with ESAs online, you can start the questionnaire in the link below.
Why Do Emotional Support Animals Get Special Treatment?
The purpose of FHA rules when it comes to ESAs is to allow people with mental and emotional disabilities to be accompanied by their ESAs in order to have equal opportunity to enjoy and use a dwelling. An Emotional Support Animal can be used to alleviate the symptoms of a mental illness, such as severe anxiety, depression or phobias and many people have found tremendous therapeutic benefits from the companionship of an ESA.
The FHA ensures that landlords cannot discriminate against tenants who have an ESA that helps them cope with their mental illness. Even if a tenant lives in a building with a “no pets” policy, the landlord must make a “reasonable accommodation” to allow for Emotional Support Animals.
ESAs are not considered normal pets under the FHA, which is why policies pertaining to pets do not apply to ESAs. That means a landlord is not permitted to charge fees or deposits in connection with an ESA, even though fees and deposits might be charged for normal pets. The landlord also cannot impose breed and weight restrictions on ESAs, even though they may apply to normal pets.
What Documents are Required for an Emotional Support Animal?
Under the Fair Housing Act, a landlord has the right to ask for proper documentation for your Emotional Support Animal. This document comes in the form of an ESA letter from a licensed health care professional (LHCP). Licensed health care professionals who can write an ESA letter can include the following:
- Licensed therapists
- Licensed counselors
- Social workers
- Psychologists/ Psychiatrists
- Nurses and Nurse Practitioners
- Physicians and Physician Assistants
The U.S. Department of Housing (HUD) has given guidance that as best practice, the ESA letter should be on the LHCP’s letterhead, signed and dated by the LHCP, and contain the LHCP’s contact and license information. The ESA letter should state that the tenant has a mental or emotional impairment and that the tenant needs their ESA because it alleviates a symptom or effect of the impairment. ESA Doctors can help connect you to a health care professional that is licensed to assist you in your state and knowledgeable about ESAs.
What Landlords Cannot Ask You for Under the FHA
When it comes to having an ESA, there are very specific rules and regulations under the FHA to protect your rights and privacy. Landlords:
- Cannot make you pay any extra rent, deposit or fee for having an ESA
- Cannot ask you for extensive details about your disability
- Cannot make you register your emotional support animal (there is no such thing as an “official registry” for ESAs)
- Cannot request a “certification” for your emotional support animal (the only valid way to qualify an ESA is with an ESA letter)
- Cannot require the animal to have specific training relating to a disability
Sometimes landlords will make additional demands on tenants after being presented with an ESA letter and request for accommodation. Landlords and housing providers need to proceed carefully with additional demands, as HUD guidance prohibits making certain requests. For example, landlords may not require a health care professional to use a specific form, provide notarized statements, make statements under penalty of perjury, or provide a tenant’s diagnosis or other detailed information about a person’s physical or mental impairments.
This point is especially important: in no circumstance can a housing provider require disclosure of details about the diagnosis or severity of the tenant’s disability, request medical records or require a medical examination.
Some tenants will voluntarily choose to submit additional forms and addendums regarding ESAs from their landlords, especially if the information being requested is reasonable and within the scope of what is permissible for landlords to ask about. The licensed professionals that work with ESA Doctors can assist you if your landlord requires such extra documents.
When Can a Landlord Deny an ESA Under the Fair Housing Act?
Even though tenants with ESAs are generally protected by the Fair Housing Act, there are a few limited circumstances where the rules do not apply or where a landlord can deny an ESA. The Fair Housing Act does not apply to:
- Owner occupied buildings with no more than four units and
- Single-family homes sold or rented by the owner without the use of an agent
In addition, landlords can deny an ESA if the ESA poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others or would cause substantial property damage. It is important to note that landlords must consider accommodation requests for ESAs on an individual basis. That means that for example a landlord cannot deny your ESA solely because it is a certain breed and they make certain assumptions about that breed being dangerous. Remember, categorical breed restrictions are not allowed when it comes to ESAs.
What If the Landlord Refuses to Comply?
Unfortunately, some landlords are very averse to ESAs or just uninformed about what the rules are and will put up unreasonable roadblocks to prevent tenants from living with their ESAs. If your landlord is ignoring your ESA request, you should be aware that HUD has issued guidance that housing providers should make a determination regarding ESA accommodations promptly, generally within 10 days of receiving an ESA letter from a tenant.
Landlords also have to engage in good-faith dialogue with a tenant making an ESA request in an “interactive process.” Before denying an ESA request for valid reasons, landlords have to allow tenants reasonable opportunity to provide information confirming the tenant’s disability or disability-related need for an ESA.
If you believe your landlord is denying accommodation of your ESA without proper justification, these are some of your options:
- Make sure the landlord/owner of the property is aware of the Fair Housing Act rules and the penalties that may ensue if they fail to comply. Many landlords are often just unaware of the laws that cover them and it is always helpful to engage in a constructive dialogue with the landlord before taking more serious action.
- As a last resort, you can report and file an official complaint against the property manager/owner with the Department of Housing’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.
The Department of Housing will often bring charges against landlords who fail to fulfill their obligations under the Fair Housing Act. Preventing a tenant from living with their ESA without valid justification can be considered discrimination and a violation of the FHA. The tenant in such a situation would have legal rights against the landlord for violating federal law.
Do I need a Service Animal or Emotional Support Animal?
It is important to understand the difference between Emotional Support Animals and Service Animals. Service Animals are trained to perform specific tasks for an owner, such as a guide dog for the blind. Service Animals have different rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and are allowed in public areas.
On the other hand, ESAs do not have special training and have more limited accommodation rights. The FHA allows tenants to live in their homes with their ESAs, but does not give the right for an ESA to be in other public places. For example, ESAs do not have an automatic right to be in restaurants, grocery stores or hotels (although many hotels will have their own policies that make accommodation for ESAs).
Service Dogs are dogs that are highly trained to do a specific task for the disabled person. The service can be anything from helping the person navigate through public places or alerting them to an oncoming seizure or low blood sugar.
Emotional Support Animals (ESA) do not need any specialized training and provide comfort and support to their owners. People may use all sorts of animals to give them the emotional support they need to live a fulfilling life. An Emotional Support Animal can be a dog, cat, bird, rabbit, hamster, gerbil, other rodent, fish, or turtle.
Dogs and cats are the most common ESAs, but other animals are allowed as well. An ESA can be any small, domesticated animal that is traditionally kept in the home for pleasure. It is also not unusual for tenants to have more than one ESA that helps them cope with their disability – that is permitted if their ESA letter covers multiple ESAs.
Fair Housing Act and Emotional Support Animals
Remember that you have rights as a tenant with an ESA under the Fair Housing Act.
It is important to understand your rights and not allow a landlord or property manager to unjustly refuse your ESA. Remember that you have rights as a tenant with an ESA under the Fair Housing Act.
If you do not currently have an ESA but are interested in seeing if you qualify for one, the first step is to seek the help of a health care professional. ESA Doctors connects clients to real licensed health care professionals that can write ESA recommendation letters for qualified clients.
If you are interested in seeing if you qualify for an emotional support animal and do not currently have a therapist, fill out the questionnaire in the link below to get started.
See if you qualify for an ESA letter below.
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