How to Make Accommodations for Assistance Animals

As a property manager, you’re required to accommodate tenants’ assistance animals. Learn what federal laws say about your responsibilities.
Members hold puppies at the Realtors Conference and Expo in Boston.
Pet are valued members of many homebuyers' and tenants' families. Sometimes they serve an extra purpose as support animals. Here, attendees of the REALTORS® Conference & Expo took time to cuddle some furry friends in Boston during the Wells Fargo Home Mortgage sponsored Paws-apalooza event.

Two weeks ago, an agent seeking advice came to Holly Eslinger, ABR, CRB, broker-owner of Exclusive Homes & Land in Arizona. A woman had visited the agent’s open house and brought what was apparently a comfort dog that proceeded to pee on the carpet—twice. Because the agent didn’t get the woman’s contact information, the sellers asked the agent to cover their $1,200 carpet cleaning bill.

Eslinger shared this story Friday during the Risk Management Issues Committee’s educational program at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in Boston. The session, focusing on legal issues related to assistance animals, was aptly titled “Are You Managing a Property or a Zoo?” and featured a panel of industry experts discussing how to handle requests for animal accommodations in housing.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that service animals, which are highly trained dogs that do specific tasks, be accommodated in housing. But the federal Fair Housing Act has a broader service animal definition that allows tenants to request a reasonable accommodation for any assistance animal, including emotional support animals.

Despite these laws, people still have to be in control of their pets, said Peter Lewis, CPM, CGPM, vice president of property management at the Schochet Companies. “A dog can’t go to the bathroom anywhere; they still have to maintain their animal the whole time,” he said.

Kenneth Krems, managing partner and chair of the real estate management team at Shaevel, Krems, O’Connor & Jackowitz, LLP, in Boston, said fair housing law likely applies in the case of the open house incident Eslinger shared. However, because reasonable accommodations were made to allow the dog into the home, the dog’s owner should pay for the damages. But since the agent didn’t require that the person sign in and leave their contact information, the agent is responsible for payment.

Tenants with pets have to comply with the normal pet rules, such as not showing aggression toward people, cleaning up messes, paying for damages from pets, and keeping up with required vaccinations, and they may be required to prove that they’re complying, Krems says.

It’s reasonable for a property manager to request to meet a service or emotional support animal, says Daniel Weaver, enforcement branch chief at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity. If a dog is problematic or aggressive, you can ask the tenant to get another dog, he says.

This week, HUD dismissed a case in which a tenant wanted accommodations for three service animals. But another case was recently settled in favor of a woman who had been sexually assaulted and wanted to keep a large German Shepherd in her apartment because it allowed her to work and live more comfortably and securely. “You can always call your local HUD office and say, ‘I’ve got this issue; what can I do about it?’” Weaver says.

Another incident involved a support dog that shed profusely, and another resident of the building was allergic. To mitigate the issue, property managers prohibited the dog from going into the community room from 1-3 p.m. each day when the other resident was there. However, the dog owner protested and filed a complaint against the landlord, claiming discrimination. But the reviewing commission agreed that reasonable accommodations were being made at the property for the dog, Weaver says.

Krems encourages property owners and managers to keep an open dialogue with tenants and provide an interactive process to solve service pet issues. Weaver echoes that point. While owners are required to make reasonable accommodations under the ADA and fair housing law, he adds that if a tenant’s animal isn’t complying with standard pet rules, then the next step is to engage with the tenant to try to find an alternative solution whenever possible.