You likely know by now that the Fair Housing Act is a federal law that prohibits discrimination by landlords, lenders, owners and managers against tenants. The Fair Housing Act sets standards and guidelines for housing discrimination regarding race, color, familial status, religion, gender, disabilities, and national origin. But to what extent does the FHA protect tenants who have service or emotional support animals? And what are the guidelines when it comes to having guests, whether short- or long-term, for renters? Would a landlord or property manager be able to turn away an applicant or evict a tenant citing things such as guests or animals as the reason; or would that constitute as a violation of the FHA?

There are many issues that intertwine with a tenants’ fair housing rights, and at Central Alabama Fair Housing Center, it is our job to keep citizens abreast with the latest news, information, and resources. As we continue to dive into fair housing rights, today we explore the issues of assistance animals and guests.

Fair Housing and Assistance Animals

Under the FHA, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment which significantly limits a person’s major life activities. Even if a property’s lease says “no pets” or restricts pets of any or all species, landlords (under the FHA) are required to make what is called a “reasonable accommodation” to allow pets who serve as assistance animals, which include animals who provide emotional support.

Why is this so? Assistance animals are in a different legal classification than animals or pets who are not certified as such, which is why pet restrictions and fees are waived for them. They are animals that work, assist, and/or perform tasks and services for the benefit of a person with a disability or provide emotional support that improves the symptoms of a disability and the individual’s quality of life. In this case, an assistance animal should be considered a “medical necessity”, much the same as a tenant’s right to wheelchair-accessible living space as necessary.

Some examples of assistance/service animals that are protected under the FHA include the following.

  • A cat who can detect oncoming seizures of their companion.
  • A dog who alleviates a person’s depression or anxiety.
  • A bird who chirps when their companion is in distress.
  • A cat who reduces a person’s PTSD-induced pain.
  • A bird who alerts their hard-of-hearing companion when someone has come to the door.

Determining if Your Pet is an Assistance Animal

Potential tenants and applicants should provide their landlords or the housing management team with a letter from a doctor, a therapist and/or a reliable third party stating that the service animal is needed for their disability and explaining how the service animal is needed to help cope with this disability and/or improves its symptoms. Under the FHA, a landlord has the right to ask for proper documentation for the emotional support animal. This documentation comes in the form of a letter from a professional, such as a therapist, counselor, social worker, or psychiatrist. The verification documentation can also come from the tenants family member or caretaker and verify (1) that the tenant or member of his or her family is a person with a disability; (2) the need for the animal is to assist the person with that specific disability; and (3) that the animal actually assists the person with a disability.

It is also suggested attaching a brief personal statement explaining to the landlord that you are asking for “a reasonable accommodation to keep your pet who functions as an assistance support animal.”

Refusal of Service/Support Animals

It is important to note, however, that though service and assistance animals are not technically pets (and therefore should not have to pay pet fees), a landlord has the right to charge a security deposit and seek additional funds from the tenant if there is any damage caused by the animal to the home.

If a tenant’s request for a reasonable accommodation is denied by a potential landlord, the applicant has every right to request that your local fair housing agency or government agency investigate their claim that the landlord is exercising discrimination in violation of the FHA. One  can be file a complaint directly through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or a local state agency. Those residing in the greater central Alabama area can search the CAFHC website for legal resources and assistance, as well.