The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that safeguards tenants with disabilities. Under the FHA, a disability can be a mental health condition if it is severe enough. 

Many individuals grappling with mental illness or emotional distress issues have emotional support animals (ESAs) that help manage their condition. Under the FHA, landlords have to accommodate tenants with 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 housing rights as a tenant under the Fair Housing Act.


ESA Housing Rights

The Fair Housing Act grants many rights to owners of ESAs in order to protect their ability to stay with their animals. These housing rights and the process to qualify for an ESA are addressed in guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Housing

In summary, ESA owners enjoy the following housing rights:

  1. The ability to live in no-pet buildings.
  2. Freedom from pet fees and pet deposits.
  3. Exemption from pet size limits.
  4. Exemption from pet breed restrictions.
  5. Protection against discriminatory housing practices. 

These rights for ESA owners ensure fair treatment for all potential and current tenants who need their emotional support animal. They promote equality and inclusivity in housing opportunities. These ESA housing rights also help to foster diverse, inclusive communities and guarantee fair treatment in the housing sector.

Why Do Emotional Support Animals Get Special Treatment?

Emotional support cat reaching for the finger of its human
Emotional support animals are not considered pets since they provide therapeutic benefits to their owners.

The FHA recognizes how important emotional support animals are to their owners. Without them, ESA owners would have a difficult time managing their mental health and be unable to live fulfilling lives. Emotional support animals are essential companions for people with conditions like depression, PTSD, chronic anxiety, and learning disorders. 

ESAs are not considered normal pets under the FHA, which is why policies pertaining to pets do not apply to ESAs. They are legally recognized assistance animals that comfort people with mental health issues.

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 healthcare professional (LHCP). Licensed health care professionals who can write an ESA letter include the following:

  • Licensed therapists
  • Licensed counselors
  • Social workers
  • Psychologists
  • Psychiatrists
  • Nurses and Nurse Practitioners
  • Physicians and Physician Assistants

An ESA letter should be on the LHCP’s letterhead, signed and dated by the LHCP, and contain the LHCP’s contact and license information. 

If you don’t know where to turn, ESA Doctors can help connect you to a healthcare professional that is licensed to assist you in your state and knowledgeable about ESAs.

What Landlords Cannot Ask You Under the FHA

Emotional support dog in an 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)
  • Cannot request a “certification for your emotional support animal (the only valid way to qualify for 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 can’t force a healthcare 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.

ESA Housing & Landlords - Infographic

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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 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. 

Emotional support dog playing on the floor in a rented apartment
A landlord can deny an ESA accommodation request in certain limited circumstances

What If the Landlord Refuses to Comply?

Unfortunately, some landlords can be extremely averse to ESAs or just uninformed about the rules 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 stating that housing providers should respond 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 a reasonable opportunity to provide information confirming the tenant’s disability-related need for an ESA.

If you believe your landlord is denying accommodation of your ESA without proper justification, here are a couple of 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. It is always helpful to engage in a constructive dialogue with the landlord before taking more serious action.
  2. 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.

Violations of Fair Housing Rights

The Department of Housing can 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.

For example, in 2020 the U.S. Department of Housing brought charges against a landlord in St. Paul for discriminating against an individual with an ESA. HUD found that the potential tenant’s Fair Housing rights were violated when the landlord refused to accommodate their emotional support animal.

The Fair Housing Act and Emotional Support Animals

Understanding your rights as a tenant with an emotional support animal under the Fair Housing Act is vital to ensuring fair treatment. Don’t let landlords or property managers unjustly deny your ESA. Your rights under the Fair Housing Act protect you.

If you want to know if you qualify for an ESA, the first step involves seeking assistance from a healthcare professional. ESA Doctors can help by connecting you with licensed healthcare professionals capable of providing ESA recommendation letters to eligible individuals.

If you’re interested in obtaining an ESA, you can get started by filling out the questionnaire at the link below. This could be the first step towards securing the support and comfort an ESA can offer.

See if you qualify for an ESA letter below.

Get the Love and Support you Deserve!