Playing It Safe: Apartment Pets, Assistance Animals and Fair Housing

Multifamily experts shed light on dealing with HUD guidance for emotional support animals.

Some housing providers don’t charge pet rent. A pet deposit refundable when the renter moves out is an effective way to keep the apartment looking good. Image via Canva

Home is where the heart is and, for many apartment residents, home is also the place they share with a beloved pet. A new crop of multifamily amenities designed to attract pet owners have sprung up in recent years, but not all creatures are cut out for apartment life or make good neighbors. Unfortunately, residents and property managers don’t always see eye to eye—even when the property’s rules are clearly and expertly communicated. Debates typically center around which animals qualify as pets, when is a service animal actually a pet and under what circumstances are emotional support animals genuinely needed.

READ ALSO: Service Animals vs. Assistance Animals: Know the Difference

Last December, the federal government cracked down on the types of animals allowed to fly with their owners in the cabins of commercial airplanes. “We applauded that because we watch what the airlines do and they watch what we do. Why do we care what the feds are doing about the airlines? The airlines and multifamily have been in tune for a long time because we have the same issue,” Fair Housing consultant & educator Anne Sadovsky, CAM CAPS NAAEI advanced facilitator, told Multi-Housing News.

“The issue is that some people cheat and lie to get their pet on an airplane—or into an apartment—saying it’s a service or emotional support animal (ESA) when it’s not,” Sadovsky said. “You can see why the airlines finally took that step. There have been horror stories of miniature pigs defecating in the aisle or the so-called ESA or service dog biting the person next to them. One passenger required 28 stitches.”

Meeting Emotional Needs

Multifamily operators are wise to be animal friendly—and frankly, they need to be in order to be competitive, since so many apartment residents are bonded and emotionally attached to their animals. According to Sadovsky, adoptions of animals increased by 60 percent since the onset of the pandemic because people are staying home, they’re lonely and having a pet has made a huge difference in meeting emotional needs. “And, some people really do need their animals,” she added.

READ ALSO: Emotional Support Animals: What Landlords Need to Know

One of Sadovsky’s favorite stories involves a young man in Florida who was a classic introvert and had to work from home. He couldn’t stand being around people and he had agoraphobia symptoms. One day he walked out on his deck and discovered an abandoned baby duck. He took the animal inside, cared for it and bonded with it. When the property management told him the duck could not live in the apartment, the resident hired an attorney and they ended up in court.

The attorney made the following argument: “Your honor, for a grown man to stand here and face a judge and say ‘I can’t live a normal life. I can’t go outside my home. I’m uncomfortable going to get my mail. I have bonded with this duck, and he is my companion animal’ … obviously the man needs the duck.” The judge ruled in favor of the resident.

HUD Shares Guidelines

The biggest number of fair housing complaints filed these days are related to disability and the number one reason under that category is animals, according to Sadovsky. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) makes it unlawful for a housing provider to refuse to make a reasonable accommodation that a person with a disability may need in order to have equal opportunity to enjoy and use a dwelling. In her Fair Housing training classes, Sadovsky draws from her deep knowledge of HUD policies.

The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful for a housing provider to refuse to make a reasonable accommodation that a person with a disability may need. Image via Canva

HUD’s guidance can help housing providers differentiate between a person with a non-obvious disability (who has a real need for an assistance animal) and a person who simply wants to have a pet but avoid pet fees or deposits.

A year ago, the HUD Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity released the Assistance Animals Notice to clarify the rights and obligations under the FHA regarding assistance animals. According to HUD, a person with a disability may need an assistance animal in their home that provides disability-related assistance, even if the animal is not individually trained as a service animal.

HUD generally defines assistance animals as animals that are kept in the household and not as farm animals or other commercial purposes. According to the Assistance Animals Notice, “housing providers may not exclude or charge a fee or deposit for assistance animals because these animals serve an important function that individuals with disabilities that affect major life activities need in order to have equal opportunity in housing.”

Under the Fair Housing Act, apartment operators are allowed to ask for more information such as a note from a health care professional when processing a reasonable accommodation request. HUD acknowledges that documentation from websites that sell certificates, registrations, licensing documents and animal gear “is not sufficient to reliably establish that an individual has a non-observable disability or disability-related need for an assistance animal. However, in some circumstances, documentation may be reliable where provided by legitimate, licensed health care professionals delivering health care services remotely, including over the Internet.”

Rolling Out the Welcome Mat

Property management company Univesco has been ahead of the curve in terms of encouraging residents to have animals. This strategy continues to have a positive effect on occupancy, and residents have commented it’s why they selected a Univesco property.

“For at least 20 years, we have not charged a pet fee or pet rent. We only do pet deposits,” Dorothy Smith, vice president of operations for Univesco, told MHN. “If the prospect knows that they can get all the money back when they move out—if there has been no damage—then they’re more likely to keep the apartment looking good.”

READ ALSO: Standardized Pet Processes Can Recover Lost Revenue

Univesco stopped limiting pet weight around 15 years ago and also eliminated breed restrictions four or five years ago. “It was hard to distinguish what was a restricted breed because our insurance was telling us one thing and the state was telling us something else,” Smith explained. The paperwork from the resident would say it was a Staffordshire Terrier when really it resembled a Pit Bull—and so there was arguing back and forth about what kind of dog it was.

“There were many bogus ESA accommodation requests at that time,” Smith added. “As soon as we would say this is a restricted breed and you can’t have them, it would immediately become an ESA animal.”

Some applicants will go to any lengths to be able to live with their animal. However, HUD generally defines assistance animals as animals that are kept in the household and not as farm animals or for commercial purposes. Image via Canva

According to Smith, no applicants have ever tried to bring a horse or a snake. It’s usually dogs and cats. “Twice there were pigs, but both times we were able to bypass it because the city had a no livestock requirement.”

Asking applicants the right questions and being specific can help operators handle any kind of ESA. Sadovsky suggests avoiding the word pet when prequalifying people. Instead, you can say: “Do you have an animal that will be living with you in the apartment? What kind of animal do you have?” There have been cases where the applicant said: “No, I do not have a pet.” Then, after the resident has moved in, the manager sees her out walking the dog. When the manager says, “I thought you just told us a few weeks ago that you don’t have a pet,” the resident says, “I don’t have a pet. This is my emotional support animal.”

Even when apartment operators are incredibly cautious, it’s impossible to anticipate how each and every scenario will play out. But clever operators can learn to close potential loopholes.

“Our goal is to not end up with a 155-pound pig or miniature horse. It has to remain reasonable. We don’t want somebody raising alligators in their apartment,” Sadovsky said. You want to protect the real estate asset and it’s also about neighbors living together.

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