ASSISTANCE & SERVICE ANIMALS FOR TENANTS WHO ARE PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES
This article was developed by the Fair Housing Partners of Washington to educate tenants who are persons with disabilities about requesting reasonable accommodations for assistance animals, commonly known as service animals.
WHAT IS REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION?
The Federal Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 605 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Washington State Law Against Discrimination, and local fair housing laws require that housing owners and managers provide reasonable accommodations for applicants and residents who have disabilities. Reasonable accommodations are changed in rules, policies, practices, or services that are necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. Allowing residents who have disabilities to live with their service animals is a reasonable accommodation.
WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF DISABILITY?
Under fair housing laws, a person is considered to be disabled if s/he has a sensory, mental or physical condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities (such as walking, seeing, hearing, working, etc.). The state law definition includes disabilities that are temporary or permanent, common or uncommon, mitigated or unmitigated. Some people have a disability-related need for service animals to assist them with the functional limitations caused by their disabilities.
WHAT IS THE DEFINITION OF AN ASSISTANCE ANIMAL?
Assistance Animals: HUD compliance guidelines define assistive animals as “animals that serve as a reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities by assisting those individuals in some identifiable way by making it possible for them to make more effective use of their housing.”
Under fair housing laws, the term “assistance animal” includes animals who may also be known as service animals, ‘support animals’, assistance animals, therapy animals, and companion animals. While most assistance service animals are dogs, they may be other species, such as cats, birds or other domestic animals.
Assistance animals may be any breed, size or weight. Some, but not all, assistance animals wear special collars or harnesses. Assistance animals are not required to have special licenses, to be certified, or to have any visible identification.
Service Animals: HUD regulations governing the Fair Housing Act do not provide a specific definition of the term “service animal.” But generally speaking, service animals are assistance animals that are “trained to perform certain services or tasks for persons with disabilities. Examples include, but are not limited to, guiding individuals who are blind or have low vision, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to sounds, providing rescue assistance, pulling a wheelchair, or fetching items.”
Emotional Support Animals: An emotional support animal, often referred to as a companion animal, is defined as an assistance animal, “the presence of which ameliorates the effects of a mental or emotional disability.” According to HUD, “emotional support animals provide very private functions for persons with mental and emotional disabilities. Specifically, emotional support animals by their very nature, and without training, may relieve depression and anxiety, and help reduce stress-induced pain in persons with certain medical conditions affected by stress.”
HOW DO I REQUEST TO LIVE WITH AN ASSISTANCE ANIMAL?
If you need to live with an assistance animal because of your disability, make a request to your landlord or manager for a reasonable accommodation. It is best to submit such requests in writing, but verbal requests are acceptable. Sample letters can be found at the end of this article.
What about no-pets policies?
Under the federal Fair Housing Act, a person with a disability who needs an animal that provides disability-related assistance may request that a housing provide waive a “no pets” policy as a reasonable accommodation.
Can a housing provider verify that an assistance animal is necessary?
Yes. Housing providers are entitled to verify:
- the existence of the disability if it is not readily apparent, and
- the need for the accommodation if it is not readily apparent.
For example, if you are seeking a reasonable accommodation for an emotional support animal, you may be required to provide documentation from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professional that the animal provides support that alleviates at least one of your disability symptoms or effects of the existing disability.
If your landlord or manager asks for this verification, you should obtain a signed letter from your doctor or other medical professional, or other qualified third party who, in their professional capacity, has knowledge about your disability and your need for a reasonable accommodation. You do not have to provide details about your disability or about the specific tasks the service animal performs.
NOTE: A verification letter stating that the service animal would be “nice” or “helpful” is insufficient.
Can a housing provider require that a service assistance animal be trained?
It depends on the assistance animal’s purpose. According to HUD, “the Department’s position has been that animals necessary as a reasonable accommodation do not necessarily need to have specialized training. Some animals perform tasks that require training, and others provide assistance that does not require training.”
Does an emotional support animal or companion animal need to be trained?
No. According to HUD, “emotional support animals do not need training to ameliorate the effects of a person’s mental and emotional disabilities. For example, there are animals that have an innate ability to detect that a person with a seizure disorder is about to have a seizure and can let the individual know ahead of time so that the person can prepare. This ability is not the result of training, and a person with a seizure disorder might need such an animal as a reasonable accommodation to her disability.”
Can a housing provider require licensing?
Yes. A housing provider can require that your assistance animal be licensed, if required in your municipality.
Can a housing provider charge pet rent or fees, or require additional deposit, for assistance animals?
No. Owners of assistance animals should not be charged pet deposits or fees, and cannot require a tenant with an assistance animal to obtain extra insurance. General cleaning or damage deposits can be charged, if all residents are similarly charged. Please remember that a housing provider can hold a resident with an assistance animal liable for any damage the animal causes.
Can a housing provider limit the number of assistance animals?
In some cases, a tenant with a disability may need assistance animals for different purposes. In some cases, more than one household member may be a person with a disability who needs an assistance animal. However, a resident with a disability must demonstrate a connection between the disability and the function each assistance animal provides. If a resident with a disability demonstrates that she needs one assistance animal to limit the effects of a mental or emotional disability and another to pull her wheelchair, approving two assistance animals would constitute a reasonable accommodation.
It is not necessary for a tenant with a disability to utilize more than one animal for the same function unless a new assistance animal is being trained to replace an older, retiring animal.
What if my housing provider only allows pets under 30 pounds?
Assistance animals, including service animals and companion animals, are NOT pets. Because assistance animals may be any breed, size, or weight, housing providers should reasonably accommodate a tenant with a disability-related need for an assistance animal by waiving any size or weight limitations that might otherwise apply to pets.
When can a housing provider deny an assistance animal?
Housing providers are not required to provide a reasonable accommodation that is unnecessary or that would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others. Thus, if the particular animal requested by the individual with a disability has a history of dangerous behavior, the housing provider does not have to accept the animal into the housing.
ANIMAL CARE AND SUPERVISION
You are responsible for the care of your service animal. You must supervise your animal and retain full control of it at all times. This means that while the animal is in common areas, it is on a leash, in a carrier, or otherwise in your direct control. When in the presence of others, the animal is expected to be well behaved (not jumping on or nipping at people, not snarling or barking, etc.).
You are responsible for the proper disposal of animal waste-
- Carry equipment to clean up your service animal’s feces whenever the animal is in the common areas.
- Properly dispose of waster and/or litter.
- If you need assistance with cleanup, arrange for such help through family, friends or advocates.
REMOVAL OF A SERVICE ANIMAL
If a service animal is unruly or disruptive (aggressively jumping, nipping, etc.), the manager may ask the resident to remove the animal from a common area. If the animal’s inappropriate behavior happens repeatedly, the manager may request that the resident not bring the animal into common areas until steps have been taken to mitigate the behavior (such as refresher training), or ask that the animal be removed from the residential premises.
WHAT ABOUT OTHERS WHO ARE AFRAID OF OR ALLERGIC TO ANIMALS?
A fear of or minor allergy to dogs or other animals is not a disability, so management does not need to “accommodate” others in those situations. In rare cases, a person’s allergy may be so severe that animal contact may cause respiratory distress. In those situations, the allergic person may also request an accommodation, such as keeping the animal and the allergic person separate, as much as possible.
LOCAL ORDINANCES THAT BAN SPECIFIC BREEDS
A few cities have adopted ordinances that completely ban the ownership of particular breeds including pit bulls, wolf-hybrids, and others. Because prohibiting specific breeds could be considered too limiting for people with disabilities, local governments should be able to show that the breed has some unique traits and characteristics that pose a greater threat of serious injury or death to humans than other breeds. Breed-specific ordinances must also clearly define the particular breed being regulated so that owners or potential owners are given sufficient notice of requirements and violations. Housing providers should consider working with a tenant to seek a reasonable accommodation exception from a prohibited breed ordinance.
Canine Good Citizen Certification Exemption- Some cities, such as Pasco and Oak Harbor, provide exemptions for potentially dangerous and breed-specific dogs that receive a certificate from passing the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Program.
Service Dog Exemption-The Washington State Human Rights Commission recommends that language be included in breed-specific dangerous dog ordinances that provides exceptions, exemptions, or waivers for trained guide dogs or service dogs used by people with disabilities (see RCW 49.60.215). A trained guide dog or service animal must be safe and under the control of the user. Prohibiting specific breeds could be considered too limiting for people with disabilities. See WSHRC’s Service Animal Questions page, www.hum.wa.gov/employer/faq_servanim.htm.
Some insurance carriers refuse to cover a rental property, substantially increase the cost of coverage, or adversely change the terms of their policies if a person with a disability resides in the rental dwelling with an assistance animal that is a breed of dog that the carrier considers dangerous.
HUD and the U.S. Department of Justice have issued a joint statement on “Reasonable Accommodations Under the Fair Housing Act”. This statement notes that an accommodation is unreasonable if it imposes an undue financial and administrative burden on a housing provider’s operations. If an insurance carrier would cancel, increase policy costs, or adversely change policy terms because of the presence of a certain breed of dog or certain animal, HUD states that this imposes an undue financial and administrative burden on the housing provider.
A housing provider should substantiate any claim regarding the potential loss of or adverse change to the insurance coverage by verifying such a claim with the insurance company directly and considering whether comparable insurance, without the restriction, is available in the market. If there is evidence that an insurance provider has a policy of refusing to insure any housing that has animals, without exception for assistance animals, the insurance provider may be violating federal civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination based on disability.
To learn more about reasonable accommodation principles, including guidance about the denial of a reasonable accommodation because of a “direct threat” or insurance restrictions, see
- “Insurance Policy Restrictions as a Defense for Refusals to Make a Reasonable Accommodation”, www.fairhousing.com/include/media/pdf/insuranceguidance.pdf
- “Joint Statement of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice: Reasonable Accommodations Under the Fair Housing Act,” www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/library/huddojstatement.pdf
RESOURCES & QUESTIONS
If you have any questions regarding your rights and responsibilities under the fair housing laws, contact a fair housing agency. The agencies include:
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
- Washington State Human Rights Commission
- Fair Housing Center of Washington
- Northwest Fair Housing Alliance
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Information Line
U.S. Department of Justice
800-514-0301, TTY 800-514-0383
Delta Society National Service Dog Center
Provides education, referral, research assistance, and other information regarding service dogs.
875 124th Ave NE, Ste 101
Bellevue, WA 98005-2531