Latest Update: October 31, 2019

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.

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. If you are looking to get your ESA letter online, start the questionnaire in the link below. 

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 mental health professional (LMHP). Licensed mental health professionals includes:

  • Licensed therapists
  • Counselors
  • Social workers
  • Psychologists/ Psychiatrists
  • Specialized Nurses

The ESA letter should be on the LMHP’s letterhead and contain the LMHP’s contact and license information. ESA Doctors can help connect you to a licensed mental health professional that is licensed to assist you in your state and knowledgeable about ESAs.

How to Get Documents for Your Emotional Support Animal 

The FHA ensures that landlords cannot discriminate against tenants who have an Emotional Support Animal (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.

Some apartment managers provide additional forms to be filled out. The therapists that work with ESA Doctors can assist you if your landlord requires extra documents. Click on the link below to get started with your ESA evaluation if you are interested in seeing if you qualify for an ESA letter from a mental health professional.

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. Emotional support animals, as their name implies, provide emotional support to owners suffering from mental and emotional disabilities. 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. 

Certified Service Animals are animals 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 are there to purely gives comfort and love. Emotional support animals can be dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, lizards, etc. People may use all sorts of animals to give them the emotional support they need to live a fulfilling life.

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Why Do Emotional Support Animals Get Special Treatment?

Emotional support cat touching human

Emotional support animals are not considered pets since they provide therapeutic benefits to their owners.

ESAs are not considered normal pets, which is why policies pertaining to pets do not apply to ESAs. That means a landlord is also 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.

An Emotional Support Animal can be used to alleviate the symptoms of a mental illness, such as severe anxiety, depression or phobias. Many people have found tremendous therapeutic benefits from the companionship of an ESA.

What Landlords Cannot Ask You for Under the FHA

Emotional support dog in apartment

There are limitations on what a landlord can ask about you and your emotional support animal.

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)
  • Require the animal to have specific training relating to a disability

It is important to understand that while a landlord can ask for documentation of the disability-related need for the ESA in the form of the ESA letter, they are not allowed to ask for personal medical details. The Department of Housing has very clearly stated that landlords “may not ask an applicant or tenant to provide access to medical records or medical providers or provide detailed or extensive information or documentation of a person’s physical or mental impairments.”

landlords “may not ask an applicant or tenant to provide access to medical records or medical providers or provide detailed or extensive information or documentation of a person’s physical or mental impairments.”

You should also be aware that while landlords cannot charge you fees or deposits, you are still responsible for any damages caused by your ESA to the property. In addition, a landlord may be able to evict the ESA if it is unruly or out-of-control and poses a threat to the health and safety of others, or causes substantial property damage. Thus, while an ESA does not need specific training in relation to the disability, it is still important to have an ESA that is well trained and behaves properly.

Dogs and cats are the most common ESAs, but other animals are allowed as well. You should be aware however that wild or exotic animals may be at greater risk of being denied after an individualized assessment because of a possibly greater risk of harm to others or property. It is also not unusual for tenants to have more than one ESA that helps them cope with their disability – that is allowed if their ESA letter covers multiple ESAs.

When Can a Landlord Deny an ESA Under the Fair Housing Act?

esa dog on the floor

A landlord can outright deny an ESA accommodation request in 2 scenarios that do not fall 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
  • 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 and will put up unreasonable roadblocks to prevent tenants from living with their ESAs.

The Department of Housing will often bring charges against landlords for this reason. 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. If you believe your landlord is denying accommodation of your ESA without proper justification, these are some of your options: 

    1. 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. 
    2. Report and file an official complaint against the property manager/owner with the Department of Housing’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.
    3. You may sue the owner for discrimination.

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 mental health professional. ESA Doctors connects clients to real licensed mental health 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.

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