As a landlord, HOA, co-op, or other housing provider, you may have received a request from a tenant that is looking to live with an emotional support animal (ESA). Housing providers want to comply with their obligations under Fair Housing laws to accommodate tenants with ESAs, but also want to make sure the request is genuine. At the same time, housing providers want to be careful not to run afoul of the U.S. Department of Housing’s (HUD) guidelines regarding tenant privacy. 

In this article, we will explore how housing providers can verify a tenant’s ESA request while adhering to HUD guidelines. This article will also be helpful for tenants that want to understand the limits of what a landlord can ask of them regarding their emotional support animal. 


What Can I Ask a Tenant to Prove they Really Need an Emotional Support Animal? 

Under federal Fair Housing rules, an emotional support animal is a type of assistance animal. Landlords must accommodate assistance animals even in buildings that prohibit pets, subject to certain exceptions. Housing providers are also not allowed to charge fees or deposits for assistance animals.  

There are two types of assistance animals: service dogs and emotional support animals. For service dogs, if it is readily apparent that a dog is trained to do work or perform tasks for a tenant with a disability, the landlord is not permitted to make any inquiries. For example, if the dog is observed pulling a wheelchair or guiding someone visually impaired, the animal is clearly a service dog, and the landlord must allow the service dog into the residence. 

In some cases, however, it is not so obvious what the service animal does. In these cases, the landlord is permitted to ask two questions:

  1. Is the animal required because of a disability?
  2. What work or tasks has the animal been trained to perform?

If the tenant is able to answer these questions satisfactorily, the landlord cannot ask further questions regarding the nature of the tenant’s disability or ask for documentation. 

If the tenant is requesting accommodation with an emotional support animal, the housing provider is entitled to request supporting documentation in the form of an ESA letter.

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If the answer to either question is no, however, the animal is not a service dog for purposes of federal housing law, but it may be an emotional support animal.

What Type of Documentation is Valid for an Emotional Support Animal?

Under Fair Housing Act, landlords are allowed to request proof for the need for an emotional support animal in the form of a recommendation letter written by a licensed healthcare professional. An ESA letter can come from a wide range of licensed professionals that are familiar with the tenant’s mental health. Specific examples listed by HUD include:

  • psychiatrists
  • psychologists
  • social workers
  • physician’s assistants
  • nurse practitioners
  • nurses
  • licensed counselors and therapists

Contrary to a popular myth, an ESA letter does not have to come from a doctor, and most ESA letters are actually not from physicians. 

Housing providers are sometimes presented with things like ESA registrations and certificates from non-healthcare professionals, identification cards, badges, and other accessories. Landlords should be aware that these items are not by themselves sufficient to establish a tenant’s need for an ESA, and a landlord is entitled to request documentation from the tenant’s health care provider instead. 

How Can I Further Verify that a Tenant’s ESA Letter is Real?

Once presented with an ESA letter by a tenant, a housing provider may wonder what kind of verification they can conduct to ensure the letter is authentic. The housing provider should make sure the ESA letter is from a licensed professional. Most ESA letters will generally contain the therapist’s name, contact, and license information. 

To determine whether the therapist is validly licensed, the housing provider can verify the license number on the relevant state’s website for licensed professionals. The website should tell you whether or not the therapist is actively licensed. Housing providers should be suspicious of documents that are not issued by a licensed professional. 

What Can’t I Ask Regarding a Tenant’s Emotional Support Animal?

When dealing with a tenant requesting accommodation for their ESA, the landlord must be careful not to violate the tenant’s right to privacy regarding their condition. HUD guidance states explicitly that landlords cannot require the disclosure of details regarding the tenant’s diagnosis or the severity of their disability.

The landlord is also prohibited from requesting medical records. 

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Some landlords make the mistake of denying an ESA letter because they feel it did not sufficiently describe the tenant’s reasons for needing their emotional support animal. That may be a deliberate omission by the therapist, since both professional obligations of confidentiality and Fair Housing rules prevent a therapist from disclosing too much information about a client’s condition. 

Some landlords want to discuss the tenant’s need for an ESA directly with the therapist, but for the reasons discussed previously regarding tenant confidentiality, that can be a tricky road to navigate. Many tenants are also understandably nervous when a landlord requests verification of ESA documentation with their healthcare provider. The healthcare provider is privy to sensitive information regarding the tenant’s condition and medical history, and tenants are keen to protect the confidentiality of that information.

If the landlord has justifiable doubts that the letter was written for the tenant, as best practice, the landlord should request permission from the tenant before reaching out to the therapist. If the therapist is contacted, the landlord should then ensure they do not ask any questions that delve into the client’s condition and medical history in a way that violates HUD’s guidelines. That generally means limiting questions to basic confirmatory inquiries, such as whether the therapist wrote the letter for the tenant. The healthcare professional is also under their obligation of confidentiality and would likely not be able to share information beyond what is contained in the letter in any event. 

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ESA letters can be issued through legitimate online providers and telemedicine.

If the Tenant Has Presented an ESA Letter, Can I Ask for Additional Proof? 

If a tenant has provided a valid ESA letter, housing providers have to be careful about requesting additional documentation. As previously discussed, housing providers cannot ask for things like certificates, registrations or ID cards since these items cannot officially qualify an emotional support animal and have no legal significance.

In the past, many landlords also tried to have tenants fill out additional forms and make various attestations to verify an ESA request. In an effort to curtail these practices, recent HUD guidelines state that housing providers may not require a health care professional to use a specific form, to provide notarized statements, to make statements under penalty of perjury, or to provide an individual’s diagnosis or other detailed information about a person’s physical or mental impairments.

Conclusion

When it comes to validating a tenant’s request for an emotional support animal, a landlord’s primary means of verification is to ask for an ESA letter from a licensed professional. If you’re a landlord, you don’t have to merely rely on the tenant’s word when it comes to an ESA, or on a questionable registration number or ID card. Fair Housing rules enable a landlord to verify a tenant’s ESA request with documented proof in the form of an ESA letter from a licensed healthcare professional. Landlords should exercise caution however, when making further inquiries and requests and ensure their actions are compliant with their Fair Housing obligations.  

You may also find these articles helpful:

  1. How do I make my dog an emotional support animal?
  2. 5 Frequently Asked Questions about ESA Housing Rights
  3. Do ESA letters expire? How do I renew mine?