What does it mean?
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Guidance on Animal-Related Accommodation Services
On January 28, 2020, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released guidance to clarify the way housing providers are required to comply with laws when assessing a person’s request for an assistance animal due to a disability. The new guidelines are not law but were issue to help interpret the laws that allow a person with a disability to have an assistance animal where they live. HUD’s guidance is intended to give housing providers a step-by-step process for complying with reasonable accommodation requests involving assistance animals, including information a housing provider may need to know from healthcare professionals.
Requirements of the Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing providers from discriminating against those who have disabilities that affect a major life activity. As such, the Act requires reasonable accommodation to permit exception to an animal policy so that a person with a disability has an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a home. Most of the time, refusal to make such a change is considered unlawful.
Through a step-by-step process, housing providers can conform to the requirements of the law when addressing reasonable accommodation requests involving assistance animals. There are two sections to note. “Assessing a Person’s Request to Have an Animal as a Reasonable Accommodation Under the Fair Housing Act” recommends a set of best practices for complying with accommodation requests. The second section, “Guidance on Documenting an Individual’s Need for Assistance Animals in Housing” helps individuals with disabilities explain to healthcare professionals the type of information a housing provider may need. This clarification helps housing providers avoid violations under the Fair Housing Act.
Assessing a Person’s Request to Have an Animal
When addressing disabilities, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) rules apply. A disability is defined as something physical or mental that impacts a major life activity. For example, there are psychiatric trained service animals, but many people get help from emotional support animals. This is also where laws and policies are being stretched pertaining to the need for assistance. Questions about an individual’s disability are not allowed. Under ADA rules, a housing provider may ask two questions:
- Is the animal required because of a disability?
- What work or task has the animal been trained to preform?
The most common exception for reasonable accommodation is exceptions to a pet policy. In some cases, an individual with a disability, affecting a major life activity, may need the assistance of an animal to help with certain tasks. Assistance animals are not pets. They are animals that do work, perform tasks, assist, and/or provide therapeutic emotional support for individuals with disabilities. There are 2 types of assistance animals. Service Dogs which are governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act. To date, there minimal disputes toward service dogs since they have obvious training and/or the person has a visible disability. Support Animals can be trained or untrained to provide assistance or support; they are governed by the Fair Housing Act. An animal that does not qualify as a service dog or support animal is a pet for purposes of the Fair Housing Act and may be treated as a pet for purposes of the lease and the housing provider’s rules and policies. HUD’s guidance covers both types of assistance animals but is focused on support animals, because it is a broad category that can be easily misinterpreted by landlords and abused by tenants.
There has been a significant increase in the number of requests for support animals. The most common complaints received by HUD pertain to support animals; 60% of all Fair Housing complaints concern the denial of reasonable accommodations. Investigations following denial show most complaints involve rejecting support animals when a disability is not obvious. HUD seeks to provide a tool that can be used when it is uncertain what information/documentation is needed or permitted when an individual is seeking reasonable accommodation for a support animal due to a disability.
Additionally, there has been an increase in abuse of the Fair Housing Act with claims that pets are assistance animals. A host of predatory services and emotional support animal registries have developed over the years. Documentation to support claims is easily obtained on the internet by paying a fee to servicers offering animal certifications. The step-by-step process will help housing providers distinguish when a person with a non-obvious disability has a legitimate need for an assistance animal or a person without a disability is seeking exception to a housing providers’ pet policy.
Clarification in the New Guidelines
- A housing provider may not charge a fee for processing a reasonable accommodation request.
- Pet rules do not apply to assistance animals.
- Housing providers may not limit the breed or size of a dog used as an assistance animal.
- Housing providers can impose limits based on specific issues with the animal’s conduct if it poses a direct threat.
- A housing provider may not charge a deposit, fee, or surcharge for an assistance animal.
- A housing provider may charge a tenant for damage an assistance animal causes.
- A person with a disability is responsible for feeding, maintaining, providing veterinary care, and controlling their assistance animal.
Guidance on Documenting an Individual’s Need
New guidance clarifies housing providers have the right for more reliable documentation, such as a letter from health care professional, when a disability is not obvious. Addressing documentation from the internet, HUD’s guidance says, “Under the Fair Housing Act, a housing provider may request reliable documentation when an individual requesting a reasonable accommodation has a disability and disability-related need for an accommodation that are not obvious or otherwise known.” HUD also clarifies the kinds of animals allowed with a list of animals commonly kept in a household such as dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, rodents, and other domestic animals. Additionally, barnyard animals such as moneys, kangaroos and animals not commonly kept in homes are considered unique. If a person has a unique animal, it may be used with demonstration of a disability-related therapeutic need. Individuals are encouraged to submit documentation from a health care professional confirming the particular animal is needed.
As a best practice, documentation provided by a healthcare professional should include: patient name, the providers relationship with the patient, type of animal, whether the patient has physical or mental disability, and whether the disability limits a major life activity or bodily function, if the animal is for a task or emotional support. Details of the disability do not have to be disclosed. If the animal falls into the “unique” category, HUD says the letter should also include the date of the last consultation, unique circumstance justifying the use of that particular animal, and whether the provider has reliable information about the animal or they specifically recommended it.
“For housing providers, this is a tool that can be used to help them lawfully navigate various sets of sometimes complex circumstances to ensure that reasonable accommodations are provided where required so that persons with a disability-related need for an assistance animal have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their housing. The guidance will help ensure that these important legal rights are asserted only in appropriate circumstances,” HUD General Counsel Paul Compton.
The new guidance on animal-related accommodation services aims at giving housing providers a set of best practices when assessing accommodation requests. By providing greater clarity, this guidance serves as a tool for housing providers to reduce Fair Housing Act violations pertaining to individuals with disabilities. It is a tool that can be used to evaluate reasonable accommodation requests pertaining to assistance animals. The information in this blog should be used in conjunction with HUD’s guidance and government regulations prohibiting discrimination when addressing requests for reasonable accommodation.