Window to the Law: Assistance Animals in Housing

Learn the issues when an individual makes a request for an accommodation for an assistance animal.

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Window to the Law: Assistance Animals in Housing: Transcript

Welcome to Wild NAR, where we will explore the issue of assistance animals in housing. This remains a controversial topic for property owners and property managers, and continues to be identified as one of the top issues for real estate professionals. NAR’s Risk Management Issues Committee will cover this topic during NAR’s annual convention

Let’s get started with the basics. The federal Fair Housing Act requires housing providers to make accommodations for assistance animals that aid individuals with a disability. In addition, many state laws also contain similar requirements. This applies to all housing covered by the Act, including housing that may have a “no pets” policy or similar restrictions on the types of animals that residents may have in their units. An accommodation request under the Fair Housing Act isn’t limited to a particular type of assistance animal, so it could require accommodations for animals like snakes or birds. A request for reasonable accommodation must be made to a landlord for rental property or to a condominium or co-op board.

A reasonable request for accommodation to a housing provider for an assistance animal must meet the following criteria:

First, the person making the request must have a disability, which is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Second, the person has a disability-related need for the assistance animal.

Both elements must be present before a housing provider has to consider providing an accommodation for the assistance animal.

Looking at the first element, if the requestor’s disability is apparent, then housing providers cannot seek additional documentation evidencing the disability. For example, a person with severe vision impairment could not be asked to demonstrate the need for a guide dog. In addition, the housing provider cannot demand to see the applicant’s medical records, or demand specific details about the applicant’s condition.

If the requestor’s disability is not apparent, then the housing provider can require additional documentation evidencing the disability. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, sufficient documentation of a disability includes a letter from a physician, social worker, psychologist, or “other mental health professional”.

Looking at the second element, housing providers may inquire about the need for a particular assistance animal if the connection between the disability and the need for the identified assistance animal is not apparent.

An accommodation request can be denied if an applicant has failed to adequately support the accommodation request or has failed to respond to appropriate requests for information from the housing provider.

Assuming the individual has met the required criteria in their request for an accommodation, the housing provider will need to make the accommodation unless the housing provider can show that the assistance animal presents a particular risk of harm to others or the property of others or otherwise creates an undue burden. To make that analysis, housing providers should evaluate the particular assistance animal in question and not generic criteria, such as the animal’s breed. If the animal in question poses a risk of harm to others or would otherwise create an undue financial burden for the housing provider, the request can be denied. An example of when an accommodation might be denied could involve an animal with a history of attacking people.

Because the law presumes that housing providers must grant the accommodation request, the burden falls on the housing provider to demonstrate a legitimate basis for denying a request.

For real estate professionals, the determination on whether to grant an accommodation request for an assistance animal needs to be made by the housing provider and not the real estate professional. While the real estate professional can request documentation from the applicant in support of the accommodation request, this information should always be gathered at the direction of the housing provider.

Check out these resources for additional guidance. Thank you.

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