People who live with an animal that helps them with a disability or special need have certain rights under federal housing laws as well as other laws. Here’s an explanation of your rights regarding service or assistance animals.
What federal housing laws provide
The federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires housing providers to make “reasonable accommodations” to allow disabled people to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy housing. Recognizing that some people to whom the law applies use assistance or service animals, the FHA requires landlords to allow tenants to have these animals even if they don’t otherwise allow residents to keep animals. In addition, the law prohibits property owners from charging disabled tenants a fee for their animals.
The FHA deems that animals that help disabled people are not pets. Instead, it classifies some as trained service animals. These animals are always dogs and perform specific tasks for people with physical disabilities. A Seeing Eye dog is an example. The other category of animals to whom the law applies are assistance animals that help with or perform tasks or that provide emotional support to individuals whose disabilities affect major life activities. Examples include animals that provide therapeutic comfort to people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic pain. Not all animals in the latter category are trained service animals. Generally, they are common household animals such as dogs but also cats or even birds.
The FHA’s protections apply not only to tenants but also to individuals who are submitting rental applications. For example, if an applicant’s disability is obvious, such as a visual impairment, the property owner or manager is not allowed to ask for verification of the disability. However, suppose the animal owner’s disability is not readily apparent. In that case, the property owner is permitted to ask for written verification from a professional, such as a physician or therapist, of the need for the animal. If the applicant provides written verification, the property owner must make reasonable accommodations for the animal to live on a property with its owner.
The effect of other federal laws
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not directly address disabled individuals’ rights to live with service or assistance animals. Instead, the ADA requires public facilities to be accessible to disabled people. Under the ADA, owners and managers of buildings open to the public, such as retail stores or rental offices, must provide accommodation for people using a service animal. If a person who enters such a space with an animal has an obvious disability, the owner or manager cannot ask questions about the animal. If the person’s disability is not obvious, the owner or manager may ask the individual only two questions: whether the animal is a trained service animal and what task the animal is trained to perform. The ADA requires the owner to answer the questions.
The FHA and ADA and their differing requirements can be confused in situations where a disabled individual enters a rental office. If the individual applying for housing has a non-visible disability, they may bristle if asked to provide written verification, claiming that the ADA prohibits that. In this situation, the FHA is the applicable law, not the ADA, and verification requests are permissible.
There are websites that allow animal owners to register their animal as an assistance animal. Animal owners sometimes offer these certificates to property managers or owners as verification of their need for an assistance animal. However, these documents don’t comply with the FHA and are a waste of money. The property owner or manager has a right to a verification from a doctor or licensed therapist, not a website.