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Posted by By Mollie Bryant April 24, 2023

Emotional support animals spark skepticism from some landlords

In 2021, a renter applied to lease a unit in the Madison Place Apartments, a newly renovated Winona, Minnesota apartment building that was originally an elementary school. Her application was approved, and she paid a deposit before hitting a snag. The property manager wouldn’t let her move in with her emotional support animal, a cat named Stir Fry.

“There are other places,” landlord Andrew Brenner said in an email. “Don’t worry. I can refund your deposit.”

Last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) charged the apartment owner, Madison Property LLC, and Brenner with violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to lift the building’s no-pets policy for an assistance animal. In November, the civil case moved to federal court, where it’s pending.

Last year, HUD charged five apartment operators with discriminating against people with disabilities by refusing to allow service and assistance animals. HUD also charged a homeowners association with discrimination for setting rules that restricted the rights of residents to live with assistance animals.

The Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes two types of assistance animals. Service animals are dogs trained for work that helps people with disabilities, like guide dogs that assist people with vision impairments. The second kind are support animals, a broader category of animals that assist people with disabilities, including emotional support animals.

Almost any type of animal could be considered an emotional support animal if it’s commonly kept in households. Animals that aren’t usually household pets, like monkeys, can also be support animals if someone has a disability-related need for that specific animal or a certain type of animal.

Anecdotally, emotional support animals are the most common type of assistance animal, but they tend to meet the most resistance from landlords. Bogus emotional support animal certificates, which can be obtained online for a fee, have done little to stifle their skepticism.

If a building has a no-pets policy, a renter with a disability can request an accommodation, or a change to policies and practices, to live with an assistance animal.

In a 2020 memo, HUD said that complaints involving reasonable accommodations for assistance animals are one of the most common types of fair housing complaints the agency receives. Most of HUD’s discrimination charges stem from landlords denying accommodations to people with disabilities that the landlord “cannot readily observe,” the memo said.

For people with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions, living with animals can provide a host of benefits. Studies have shown animals lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. After they spend time together, both people and dogs have higher levels of the “feel-good” hormones oxytocin and dopamine.

Brian Vega, founder of Counseling Solutions of the Ozarks in Springfield, Missouri, said emotional support animals can add a sense of purpose and structure to people’s days, while motivating them to be active.

“Pets encourage us to be in the present with them, which is basically mindfulness, being in the moment,” Vega said. “That helps with anxiety. And (they have) unconditional love—you can walk out to the mailbox and come back 30 seconds later, and they’re excited and happy to see you.”

Andrew Smith is deputy executive director of Westchester Residential Opportunities in White Plains, New York. He said some property managers can be skeptical of the idea of emotional support animals, viewing them as an excuse to avoid pet fees or live with a pet in a no-pets building.

During Westchester Residential Opportunities’ fair housing tests, the nonprofit has seen violations that include refusing to allow emotional support animals altogether and restricting animals to certain sizes, breeds or types of animals.

Charging fees and deposits for assistance animals is also illegal, in part because they aren’t pets.

“You can have a pet policy, pet fees or whatever you want, but you can’t apply any of it to a service or support animal,” Smith said. “That frustrates landlords because … sometimes they have a fee because they want to discourage people from having a pet or because their perception is that their costs of maintaining their property go up (because of) pets.”
Putting it in writing

Emotional support animals are vital to some of the Homeless Alliance’s clients. The nonprofit runs Oklahoma City’s only low-barrier day shelter, which has a kennel where people can keep animals while accessing services.

“Folks living outside may not have family, friends or that real sense of community,” said Meghan Mueller, associate executive director of the Homeless Alliance. “So for a lot of people, their animals are that. They’re their whole family, their whole support system.”

The Homeless Alliance helps clients obtain the documentation that’s typically needed to move into housing with an emotional support animal.

In response to an accommodation request, landlords can ask for information to verify the renter has a disability and a need for an emotional support animal. Usually, that’s a letter from a health care provider that says the animal alleviates symptoms of their disability.

As a licensed professional counselor, Vega has been writing letters regarding emotional support animals for about 10 years. He said during that time, none of his clients’ landlords have refused to allow an animal.

[ Read more: Caregivers are burned out and underpaid. A new housing model aims to make their work more visible. ]

Vega’s letters don’t name a specific diagnosis, and he reminds his clients they’re not required to disclose their disability if their landlord asks for details.

“You can just say, ‘I qualify. I have a condition,’” he said.

Smith said Westchester Residential Opportunities’ fair housing tests have encountered landlords who asked for medical information to which they weren’t entitled. Some landlords require tenants to have their doctor complete and sign questionnaires providing additional, private health information that is not required by law.

Eric Hallett, statewide coordinator of housing advocacy for Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, said assistance animals can become the subject of evictions if renters don’t take steps to secure their rights and if there’s confusion on the responsibilities of either the landlord or tenant.

The most common issue he’s seen is landlords charging monthly pet fees and deposits to renters with assistance animals. Some renters also have the misconception that assistance animals don’t have to be kept on leashes, he said, adding that assistance animals are required to follow local codes that apply to animals, including leash laws.

If a landlord won’t accept an assistance animal, Hallett recommends renters provide the letter from their health care provider along with a written request for an accommodation.

“The law doesn’t require that you make your accommodation request in writing, however, making it in writing and keeping a copy for yourself becomes really good evidence (you’ve made the request) if you need it later,” Hallett said. “Having your shot records available and ready to go and just introducing the animal to the landlord may help because if the landlord sees the animal’s not a problem, then maybe they will be less reluctant.”
Connect with the resources mentioned in this story:

For landlords: HUD’s guide on assessing a request for an assistance animal
For renters: Information on how to file a fair housing complaint
In New York: Learn more Westchester Residential Opportunities’ services
In Oklahoma: Learn more about Homeless Alliance’s services and how to volunteer. Learn more about Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, how to apply for legal help or how to volunteer.

Contact Streetlight editor Mollie Bryant at 405-990-0988 or bryant@streetlightnews.org. Follow her reporting by joining our newsletter.

Streetlight, previously BigIfTrue.org, is a nonprofit news site based in Oklahoma City. Our mission is to report stories that envision a more equitable world and energize our readers to improve their communities. Donate to support our work here.

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