The Fair Housing Act was initiated as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and it protects renters from landlord discrimination.
As one government site makes perfectly clear, the fair housing act prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to anyone based on race, religion, age, gender and other factors … such as disability.
For individuals with disabilities, one of the most important factors to their overall wellbeing is a stable place to live. The United States government acknowledges this need and works to combat discrimination by maintaining important guidelines for property owners, as well as offering protections for individuals with disabilities.
The goal of laws such as the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHA) is to protect those with disabilities from being discriminated against by property owners.
That includes individuals with special needs, restrictions, or assistive aids, which includes emotional support animals.
ESAs Are Assistive Aids
An assistance animal is defined as an animal that provides assistance and performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. This also includes an animal that provides emotional support which alleviates one or more symptoms associated with a mental or emotional disability. The FHA requires property owners to make reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities, including those who are accompanied by emotional support animals (ESAs).
ESAs are often confused with service animals (SAs), but they serve a different, yet still protected, function to individuals with mental or emotional disabilities rather than physical disabilities.
Because outsiders may not as easily recognize mental and emotional disabilities, it is important for ESA owners to be mindful that confusion and uncertainty may be present when they begin searching for housing.
Though SAs and ESAs are distinguished and defined separately in the FHA, owners of both distinctions of animal are protected and must be accommodated.
What Protections Does the FHA Offer?
According to the FHA, individuals who are disabled cannot be denied housing based on their diagnosis or requests for reasonable accommodation. Under the Fair Housing Act, a disability is defined as a”physical or mental impairment” which substantially limits one or more major life activities. These activities can include caring for oneself, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, sleeping, and learning.
The FHA allows tenants with mental or emotional disabilities to request a reasonable accommodation for their emotional support animals. A “reasonable accommodation” is a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule or policy that may be necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their home. ESA owners should be aware of the protections afforded them, and be mindful of the best way to ensure their rights are protected.
The first step to being protected as an ESA owner is to have documentation verifying their disability and verifying the need for the ESA. This documentation must be from a Licensed Mental Health Professional and it should state that that the animal provides support and alleviates at least one of the identified symptoms or effects of the existing disability.
The FHA protects ESA owners in the following ways:
Property owners with restrictions on breed, size, or species of animal must make reasonable accommodations to such policies to allow individuals with a verified diagnosis and ESA letter to reside with their ESA. For example, a property only permitting cats cannot deny an ESA owner housing because his or her ESA is a dog but must allow the animal on the premises.
Property owners cannot require ESAs to wear identifying tags or garments or require owners to post identifying materials on their home.
Property owners cannot demand details on the nature of the disability but must respect the information provided in the ESA letter or diagnosis.
Property owners must waive fees or deposits normally required for individuals living with a pet, as the FHA does not classify SAs and ESAs as pets but as assistive aids. This means that property owners cannot request or demand ESA owners to pay deposits or fees for accommodating an ESA, regardless of the species, breed, or size.
Warnings for ESA Owners
While the FHA, ADA, and other laws provide specific protections for ESA owners, the concept of ESAs is relatively new, and many property owners are unaware of their legal requirements to accommodate ESAs. Additionally, current laws do not offer exhaustive protections for ESA owners.
Exceptions to the protections listed above may include:
- Housing properties where the property owner resides, such as a single unit or a building with less than four units AND the housing available for sale or rent is listed without a real estate agent, such as those offered by owner.
- Hotels and motels are considered public places and are not governed by the FHA, but rather the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
- While property owners cannot charge deposits or fees for accommodating an ESA, they are legally allowed to charge a tenant for repairs upon vacating the property if it is damaged.
- Property owners are allowed to express concern, seek legal guidance, and even evict a tenant if an ESA is vicious, threatening, loud, or otherwise behaves inappropriately toward others on the property. ESA owners enjoy many protections under the law, but must also be mindful to respect the laws that protect others as well.
How to Get Help
It is important for ESA owners to recognize their legal rights and responsibilities and practice due diligence in their actions and behaviors. Even when legal rights are challenged, it is recommended that ESA owners strive to remain calm and seek the appropriate help to resolve the situation, rather than exacerbate the issue unintentionally.
ESA owners have several options to obtain guidance and help if they believe that their rights have been violated.
Some of the most common options include:
- Make sure that the property owner is aware of the law as it applies to ESAs. As noted before, the concept of ESAs is somewhat new, so many property owners are unaware of their legal responsibilities.
- If a property owner refuses to comply with FHA laws, a complaint can be filed with the U.S. Justice Department against the property owner for discrimination.
- With proper legal guidance, a tenant may have the option to sue a property owner for discrimination.
- Speak with the Fair Housing Act Assistance Team here.
Renters with disabilities should not be refused for rent, denied dwelling, or imposed more costly terms than others, and property managers are required to to accept a letters from a tenant’s mental health professional.
In the same way that a seeing eye dog helps a blind tenant navigate an otherwise pet-free apartment complex, emotional support animals are essential for people who depend on the psychological companionship of pets such as dogs and cats.
Mental health professionals universally celebrate the benefits of pets in helping people face many symptoms, ranging from depression to headaches. An individual in need of emotional support animals should not be discriminated against, refused housing or charged a pet deposit.
You can read more about the benefits of an ESA or see if you qualify for an ESA by clicking below: