Be aware of housing protections for tenants with support animals

While everyone gets some level of comfort and companionship from their pets, some people get extra support that improves their mental well-being on a daily basis. Emotional support animals help people with life-limiting disabilities, including mental health issues, feel more comfortable functioning in the world.

If you have an emotional support animal, you are entitled to certain housing protections. Landlords and property managers are governed by the Fair Housing Act (FHA), a federal law that prevents discrimination against tenants and requires accommodations for all assistance animals, including those who provide emotional support.

Different designations, different rules
By definition, assistance animals are distinct from service animals. Service animals, such as seeing-eye dogs, diabetes assistance dogs, and certain PTSD dogs, are trained to do a specific task for their owners.

The use of service animals is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which provides people with disabilities with equal access to public places. Service animals must be allowed in restaurants and shops because the owner needs the animal at all times.

An assistance animal, however, does not need to be trained to serve a specific task. Any animal can be designated as an assistance animal, provided the owner has reliable documentation of a disability-related need.

Not technically a pet
Under the FHA, an individual with a disability may be entitled to keep an emotional support animal in housing facilities that do not allow pets or have restrictions that would normally exclude an animal of that particular breed or size.

Because service animals and assistance animals are not considered pets, the tenant cannot be charged a separate pet fee or deposit. However, the landlord can still seek compensation for any damages the animal causes in the home.

Avoiding suspicion
Under the FHA, anyone seeking accommodation for an assistance animal must provide reliable documentation of the disability and the need for an assistance animal. The challenge, however, is that a growing number of online services have cropped up, offering official-looking documentation based on nothing more than a credit card transaction. These bad actors are creating problems for people who have a real need for assistance animals.

To that end, some states, such as Indiana and South Dakota, are passing laws indicating that landlords can request written proof from a doctor. Legal requirements may become clearer as more states and organizations issue rules regarding service animals. For now, you may face fewer challenges if you provide a letter from a local healthcare provider rather than an online registry.

If you provide such as letter and are still denied housing, you should contact a lawyer to advocate on your behalf. You may also file a complaint with your local housing authorities or at HUD.gov.

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