With many different laws governing service animals, it can be confusing as to which ones apply to housing providers and what they are allowed to ask. This article will review the different laws that come into play, highlight which ones directly affect housing providers, and share tips to help you navigate this sometimes confusing process.
Does the ADA Law Apply to Housing?
Even though the ADA is very important, it doesn’t apply to housing except for maybe the leasing office as it is a public place. Generally, ADA laws apply to operators of public places like Target. The ADA also limits the types of animals providing support to dogs or, in rare cases, miniature horses, which we are not allowed to do as housing providers.
This is where some confusion can take place. The ADA limits what business owners can ask regarding the animal to: “Is that a trained service dog?” and “What work is the animal trained to do?” They are not allowed to ask for written verification.
So when housing providers ask for verification of need, often they are met with the resident referencing this law and stating that they do not need to provide proof of need. This leaves us with the task of informing them that this applies under the American Disabilities Act, but the ADA does not pertain to housing and that the Fair Housing Act permits verification when the disability and the need for the animal are not observable.
For example, if you can see that the animal is a guide dog, then you shouldn’t be asking for verification. But if it’s a dog that is a service animal for disabilities such as hearing problems or alert someone that they’re about to have a seizure, you can’t see that when you talk to the resident. In that case, you can ask for verification. And if they say to you that’s not permitted, then you have to clarify: “I’m asking you this not under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but under the Fair Housing Act.”
HUD and Support Animals
HUD defines support animals that do work, perform tasks, provide assistance, or provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities.
HUD also clarifies the difference between domesticated animals kept in the home (traditional) and non-traditional unique animals such as goats, pigs, chickens, snakes, etc. HUD states that the resident has a substantial burden to be able to show that they need a unique animal as an assistance animal. Now, it is not impossible to justify a unique animal. Still, they’re going to have to explain in more detail than with a usual animal why they need their snake as an emotional support animal.
HUD also addresses multiple animal requests, again placing the burden of proof on the verifier as to why one animal isn’t enough. HUD has also made it very clear that going online and getting your pet registered or certified on some website by paying money is irrelevant to the question of whether this is an assistance animal that should be approved to live in housing as a reasonable accommodation. If someone hands you one of those registrations or online certifications, you can hand it back to the resident and let them know that it is not adequate to verify their need for an assistance animal.
HUD has made it very clear it considers those websites as taking advantage of people— wasting their money—because those registrations are irrelevant to the question of whether you approve their reasonable accommodation or not.
The Fair Housing Act and Reasonable Accommodations
We have discussed how the ADA—while important—does not apply to housing, reviewed HUD guidelines that create the framework for how housing providers should view assistance animals and what they are allowed to ask. But how does that come together with the Fair Housing Act?
When we look at the Fair Housing Act and Section 504, we don’t care whether an animal is a service animal or an emotional support animal. It doesn’t matter; we don’t need to ask different questions. We only want to know if the resident is disabled, meets the definition of disability, and if that animal is necessary to assist them because of their disability. That’s all we need to be concerned with when you’re verifying a request for a reasonable accommodation.
When your property is looking at a request for an assistance animal, you need to have a very detailed procedure that all staff follows. First of all, the process should be done in writing, complete with a section for the verifier. To be a reliable verifier, the verifier has to have personal knowledge about the resident and should be providing the resident with medical or mental health services, and not merely providing a verification letter or filling out a form.
Suppose you find yourself in the situation of turning someone down because you don’t think their verification is reliable. In that case, you need to conduct a meeting explaining why you are not going to accept or grant their request and attempt to resolve their request; of course, documenting everything along the way.
Fair Housing and Assistance Animals Final Takeaway
As we have discussed, there can be a few pitfalls to understanding the different laws that come into play regarding assistance animals and housing. Regular training is essential to help everyone know which laws apply and how to follow them to ensure fair housing compliance.