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Criteria That Must Be Met Regarding Assistance Animals

Criteria That Must Be Met Regarding Assistance Animals

As you carve out rental property investment strategies for portfolio growth and NOI success, you’ll also have to be mindful of local, state, and federal mandates. Miss-stepping, either intentionally or inadvertently, can result in costly violations, potential fines, and, at worst, litigation. One such guideline all Lehigh Valley investors should know involves residents with assistance animals. 

While you can always turn to your legal professionals for guidance in drafting lease agreements and developing resident requirements. But it’s important to at least understand how to engage appropriately with potential residents who have service or assistance animals. We’ll provide the clarity you need to move forward, which, along with the advice of a qualified attorney, can ensure you stay on the right side of the law and reduce any potential liabilities.

How HUD Defines Assistance Animal Requirements

In short, you are required to allow service animals into your rental property should the candidate applying qualify for “reasonable accommodation” or have a “verifiable need” for an assistance animal. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD outlines definitions as follows:

  • Assistance animals are not pets and are not subject to any pet policies a housing provider may have in place.
  • Service animals are allowed to accompany their “persons” wherever they go, including areas that may have traditional restrictions on animal permissions.
  • Because an assistance animal of any kind is not a pet, rental property owners cannot charge pet fees or pet-related deposits for a resident with a service animal.
  • Service animals come in various species, breeds, and sizes and are not subject to any weight or breed restrictions a rental property owner might have in the lease.

In addition to what you can’t do, there are certain allowances that HUD provides to property owners regarding residents with service animals.

  • Rental property owners can require written proof or verification from a healthcare provider, listing the service animal as medically necessary.
  • Rental property owners can issue warnings or evict residents with service animals should the animal in question pose a threat to others or cause considerable property damage.
  • Rental property owners can assess and charge for damages to the property caused by a service animal. 
  • Rental property owners can request verification of the service animal’s health condition to ensure it is parasite-free, in good health, and properly immunized or vaccinated.

What You Can and Can’t Ask

Be diligent about questioning potential residents with service animals. Yes, you can ask for verification from a healthcare provider confirming the animal is medically necessary. Yes, you can ask for proof the animal in question is in good health. However, you cannot ask the applicant about his or her health conditions or inquire about “why” they need a service animal. Medical information is protected, and residents are not required to disclose anything about their physical or mental disabilities. 

Service Animals, Therapy Animals, and Companion Animals

There are different types of assistance animals, each providing a unique service to its owner, as prescribed by a healthcare professional. Here are a few distinctions rental property owners should know.

Service Animals

In general, service animals, which tend to be dogs although can also be other species like miniature horses, typically assist their owners who have physical or mental disabilities. Service animals provide guidance and support for disabilities like deafness or blindness.

Companion Animals

Companion or emotional support animals can also be a variety of species and breeds, more commonly dogs or cats. These service animals provide support to their owners who suffer from mental or emotional issues like anxiety, depression, or phobias. 

Therapy Animals

Therapy assistance animals are typically animals brought into the owner’s living space to provide support in the home or dwelling. 

The core distinctions between these various service animal categories lie in the required training for the animal. Service animals are required to complete extensive two-year training, usually resulting in highly functioning and well-behaved animals. Emotional or companion animals do not require training.

Understanding the Reasonable Accommodation Request

According to the Fair Housing Act and guidelines set forth by the Fair Housing Act, anyone seeking to apply for rental housing has the right to request “reasonable accommodation.” This refers to the official asking to bend or forgo the pet rules or policies to accommodate an assistance animal. By law, rental property owners have to abide by these requests. Should one of your applicants ask for a reasonable accommodation, it typically implies the following conditions have been met, as described by the Americans with Disabilities Act:

  • Have a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits one or more primary life activities
  • Have a history of these impairments
  • Is regarded as a person with these impairments

Because, as the landlord, you can’t ask about a candidate’s health condition, it can be difficult to know if you’re dealing with someone who actually qualifies for service animal assistance. However, you can, as previously mentioned, request verification of the assistance animal’s intended use and medically endorsed need. And you can request health records for the animal to confirm it’s healthy.

Not all landlords or rental property owners are required to provide reasonable accommodations. These situations outline those optional scenarios:

  • Investors who rent four or fewer units and live in one of those units
  • Investors who rent hotels or motels
  • Investors who rent private clubs

To better understand if you’re required to provide reasonable accommodations for those with assistance animals, based on your unique portfolio of investments, it’s best to consult your attorney.

Navigating the ‘Fake’ Request for Emotional Support Animals

Most potential residents with assistance animals know the law and will expect you, as their landlord, to make certain requests about the animal in question. And they’ll likely provide you with the healthcare verification to support the assistance animal’s need without hesitation. However, recent headlines suggest there are people out there who look to exploit loopholes in the law and know landlords can’t ask about healthcare conditions.

You may have read headlines or watched a few cringe videos online of people entering restaurants or places of business with their animals, confronting business owners who ask them to leave with their animals. And in these scenarios, businesses can’t ask a patron to provide a “dog’s papers.” However, you, as a rental property owner, can ask for the animal’s verification from a medical professional. And you can contact that medical professional to confirm they did, in fact, authorize the letter or certification. 

Let the Property Management Partner Handle It

Understanding the legal nuances and guidelines regarding assistance animals is one thing. But it can be challenging for rental property owners to follow through and manage these situations when they arise. A great way to avoid legal missteps altogether is by working with a professional property manager who is trained and versed in the resident pre-screening process, including in handling candidates who may request reasonable accommodations. 

Whether you’re brand new to rental property investing or are a seasoned veteran who’s ready for help, let Axel Property Management be your partner and guide you through all of the processes! Our team of professional managers is experienced and knowledgeable about all the assistance animal requirements and everything else that may come up with your Lehigh Valley rental property!