Do You Have a Say in Service Animal Requests?

Under fair housing law, property managers must make a reasonable accommodation for a tenant’s service or comfort animal. But how do you make sure a case is legitimate?

Now that most landlords and property managers have become accustomed to incorporating authorized comfort and service animals into their buildings' pet policies, the question becomes: How do you keep tenants from abusing such provisions? “There are people who really need comfort animals,” says Paul Dizmang, CRS, GRI, broker-owner of Dizmang Associates Real Estate Services in Springfield, Mo. “That isn’t my issue or concern. We’re talking about the abuse and misuse of it and how that’s going to affect us in our business.”

At a forum Saturday during the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in Orlando, Fla., Dizmang told the crowd of property managers that the first thing they need to know is how the law defines service and comfort animals. Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines draw a distinction between the two categories: a service animal, the federal law says, is trained and certified to perform a service for someone with a disability; a comfort animal is untrained and primarily provides emotional support to someone suffering from anxiety or a similar condition.

But — and this is a big but — the federal Fair Housing Act says service animals do not have to be trained, and thus views service and comfort animals to be the same. As a result, fair housing law requires landlords and property managers to make reasonable accommodations for both. “There are so many slippery slopes when it comes to this issue,” Dizmang says. “You can’t be too careful.”

Evaluation letters affirming a person’s need for a comfort animal are easy to obtain online. At the ADA’s website, users can complete a simple quiz, and based on their results, they can download and print a letter to present to their landlord. But can you ask tenants to provide documentation from their doctor? You can, Dizmang says, but if you pursue documentation, you could open the door to potential lawsuits.

“Fair housing officials say you can ask a tenant if they’ve been to see a doctor, but HUD has not put that rule in writing,” he says. “My strong piece of advice is to accept letters for emotional support animals without question because if a tenant files a complaint, your local fair housing office is required to investigate.”

Should you at least ask what kind of animal the tenant is using as a service or comfort animal? “Yes,” Dizmang says, “but no matter what animal they tell you it is, you have to accept it.” But here’s why it’s still a good question to ask: If a tenant tells you they have a dog, and then later you find they have a cat or some other animal, you’ll know they aren’t using the animal according to service and support animal guidelines.

Liability and insurance relating to animals on the property are also important to know about. Even if you have city ordinances that outlaw certain animal breeds, such as pit bulls, you still have to accept a tenant’s request to have that animal for support purposes. But what if your insurance won’t cover that breed? “If you can’t find any company to insure the animal — if it causes reasonable undue hardship to the property manager or owner — you can deny it,” Dizmang says. “The problem is what does ‘undue hardship’ mean?”

In most cases, landlords and property managers will likely find themselves in a position to have to accept a service or comfort animal by default because of protections tenants are guaranteed. But if you decide to challenge a tenant’s request, always call your local fair housing office to be completely sure of your rights as a property manager, Dizmang says.