Welcome to Fair Housing Act Emotional Support Animal Guide
Fair Housing Act ESA, Service Animal, & Assistance Animal Guide
Under the Fair Housing Act, service animals, companion animals, as well as emotional support animals (ESAs) are all referred to as “Assistance animals.”
Sometimes, service animals are known as service animals, and any other kind of animal that does some kind of work or task, provides assistance in some way, or offers some kind of therapeutic benefits for someone with a disability is known as a “support animal.” Assistance animals live with people with disabilities. Check out our blog Emotional Support Animals – the Ultimate Guide to learn more about ESAs in general.
The purpose of this guide
- To help housing providers and landlords determine eligibility for reasonable accommodation requests, considering that 1) many legitimate disabilities are simply invisible, and 2) some people who don’t have disabilities (unfortunately) claim their animal is an assistance animal to try to get out of paying pet fees and deposits, or to attempt to allow their pet into an environment that has a no-pets policy
- To help people with disabilities understand the process of requesting a reasonable accommodation to use any kind of assistance animal (service dog, emotional support dog, companion dog, emotional support cat) in a housing situation in the U.S. The Fair Housing Act is a federal law
- This guide will work for any kind of assistance animal, but we are going to focus on it from the perspective of emotional support animals (ESAs) due to their rising popularity, which brings rising confusion
Table of Contents
The Fair Housing Act in the U.S. prohibits discrimination by direct providers of housing, including landlords and real estate companies, municipalities, banks, other lending institutions, and homeowners insurance companies based on:
- National origin
- Familial status
Discrimination is unlawful
In other words, it’s unlawful for housing providers, including landlords, to refuse to make a reasonable accommodation that someone living with a disability might need, that would allow them to have equal opportunities to live in a space or rent a dwelling.
Landlords and other housing providers are required to make exceptions or modify their policies governing animals for people with disabilities.
What is a reasonable accommodation?
A reasonable accommodation is:
- A change
- An exception, or
- An adjustment
… to rules, policies, practices, or service that might be needed for someone with a disability to have equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling such as an apartment rental, and this includes public and common use spaces.
Many disabilities are invisible
One thing I just have to mention is that not all people are aware of the fact that many disabilities are invisible. Examples of invisible disabilities include:
- Brain injuries
- Mental conditions
- Sensory processing
- Gastro-intestinal disorders
- Hearing impairments
- Sleep disorders
- Many more…
The need for ESAs in housing
Some housing providers are denying a tenant’s request for reasonable accommodation. Sometimes – or oftentimes – these requests are being denied when a housing provider or landlord is unable to plainly see the disability. And these are typically the kind of disabilities that can benefit from emotional support animals (ESAs) more commonly compared to service dogs and/or physical, obvious disabilities.
Fair Housing Act Definition of Assistance Animal [Includes ESAs]
An assistance animal is an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability. An assistance animal is not a pet.U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
What is a disability under the FHA?
Under the Fair Housing Act, a disability is defined as:
a physical or mental impairment which significantly limits a person’s major life activities.
The term mental or physical impairment may include conditions such as:
- Hearing impairment
- Mobility impairment
- HIV infection
- Mental retardation
- Drug addiction
- Chronic fatigue
- Learning disability
- Head injury
- Mental illness
The term major life activity may include:
- Performing manual tasks
- Caring for one’s self
The Fair Housing Act also protects people if they have a record of an impairment, or if they are regarded as having such an impairment.
Who is not considered disabled under the Fair Housing Act?
- Current users of illegal controlled substances
- People convicted for illegal manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance
- Sex offenders
- Juvenile offenders
No Pets Policies & Reasonable Accommodations for ESAs Required
Even if a lease or agreement has a “no pets” restriction, landlords are required to make “reasonable accommodations,” which means they must allow certain animals and pets who serve as assistance animals, including emotional support animals.
Assistance animals & ESAs are not pets
Legally speaking – under the Fair Housing Act – assistance animals including emotional support animals are not pets; they’re in a different classification than pets. That is why pet restrictions and pet fees are waived for them.
Assistance animals are animals that work and provide assistance and/or perform tasks for the benefit of someone who lives with a disability. Or, an animal that provides emotional support that improves the symptoms of someone’s disability.
Assistance animal & ESA certification and registration
There is no legitimate, official training and/or certification for assistance animals or emotional support animals. They can assist people in a wide number of different ways.
Documentation from the Internet
Some websites sell certificates, registrations, and licensing documents for assistance animals to anyone who answers certain questions or participates in a short interview and pays a fee. Under the Fair Housing Act, a housing provider may request reliable documentation when an individual requesting a reasonable accommodation has a disability and disability-related need for an accommodation that are not obvious or otherwise known.
In HUD’s experience, such documentation from the internet is not, by itself, sufficient to reliably establish that an individual has a non-observable disability or disability-related need for an assistance animal.
U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) Fair Housing Act (FHA)
By contrast, many legitimate, licensed health care professionals deliver services remotely, including over the internet. One reliable form of documentation is a note from a person’s health care professional that confirms a person’s disability and/or need for an animal when the provider has personal knowledge of the individual.
Pet fees & other fees for assistance animals & ESAs
Fair Housing Act assistance animals, including emotional support animals, are not technically pets.
Landlords must not charge:
- Pet fees
- Pet deposits
- Assistance animal surcharge
- A fee for processing a reasonable accommodation request
The landlord can charge:
- A security deposit
- If there is any damage caused by the animal to the home
If there is a nuisance issue the landlord has the right to try and remove the assistance animal by utilizing legal proceedings.
Types of animals that can be assistance animals & ESAs under the Fair Housing Act
- An assistance animal can be a dog, cat, emotional support animal, or another kind of companion animal
- The physical and/or emotional (or both) benefits from having the animal living in a home with someone are what qualify the animal to be an assistance animal
- A letter from a therapist or medical doctor is required to classify the animal as an assistance animal
- Breed and weight restrictions do not apply to ESAs, assistance or service animals
Animals commonly kept in households should be permitted
If the animal in question is an animal that is traditionally kept in homes as a pet, rather than for commercial reasons, then the reasonable accommodation should be granted, providing the other conditions are met. Examples:
- Small bird
- Another small, domesticated animal
Common household animals do not include:
- Reptiles other than turtles
- Barnyard animals
- Other non-domesticated animals
Requests for unique animals
If a unique animal is being requested, such as an animal that is not commonly kept in households as a pet, then the person making the request has the substantial burden of demonstrating a disability-related therapeutic need for the animal. The person making the request needs to submit documentation from a health care professional who knows them to confirm the need for this particular animal.
Some people have unique needs/requests
- Some animals are individually trained to do work or perform tasks that just can’t be performed by a dog
- Sometimes, allergies prevent a person from using a dog
- Without a certain animal, the symptoms or effects of a disability will be significantly increased
- Sometimes, a person might ask to keep an animal outside (for example, at a house with a fenced yard) where the animal can be appropriately maintained
Unique example: assistance monkey
Capuchin monkeys can be trained to performs tasks for people, one example being for people with paralysis caused by a spinal cord injury. Monkeys can be trained to go and get a water bottle from the fridge, unscrew the cap, insert a straw, and place the bottle somewhere so that the person can get a drink.
Monkeys can also be trained to turn light switches on and off and retrieve
various items from inside cupboards and drawers. Someone cold have a disability-related need for this specific type of animal because monkeys can use their hands to help with manual tasks. Service dogs just can’t do that. If you check out Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers you’ll see that it’s a real thing.
Some examples of real assistance animals
- A cat can alleviate a person’s anxiety or depression
- A dog can bring medication and a water bottle in the case of a panic attack
- A cat can reduce someone’s stress-induced pain
- A bird can alert their hard-of-hearing human companion when someone has knocked on the door or called their name
Requests for more than one ESA or assistance animal
Sometimes, a landlord may receive a reasonable accommodation request for more than one ESA or assistance animal. This might happen when:
- Someone may have a legitimate disability-related need for more than one animal
- Two people who live together could each have a disability-related need to each have an animal(s)
For landlords trying to examine reasonable accommodation requests like this, just use the usual process outlined in this guide. Some people legitimately require more than one animal for their disability.
Asking for a reasonable accommodation
How to make the request
- Provide your landlord or housing provider with a letter from your doctor or therapist. This letter needs to state that you have a disability. Explain how your emotional support animal (ESA) is needed to help you cope with this disability and/or helps to improve its symptoms
- Attach a brief personal statement explaining that you are asking for “a reasonable accommodation to keep your emotional support animal who functions as an assistance animal.”
- The request may be done oral (verbally) or written (written is always recommended)
- The request may be made by others on behalf of the person who has the disability, including someone else who legally resides in the unit, a legal guardian, or another type of authorized representative
Documentation About Disability May Include
- A determination of disability from a government agency (federal, state, or local)
- Receipt of disability benefits or services (Social Security Disability Income (SSDI)
- Medicare or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for a person under age 65, veterans’ disability benefits, services from a vocational rehabilitation agency, or disability benefits or services from another federal, state, or local agency
- Eligibility for housing assistance
- A housing voucher received due to a disability
- Information confirming disability from a health care professional – such as physician, optometrist, psychiatrist, psychologist, physician’s assistant, nurse practitioner, or nurse
When the request can be made
Technically speaking, a request to keep an ESA or another assistance animal in a housing situation can be made at any time.
- Before acquiring the ESA or assistance animal
- After acquiring the ESA or assistance animal
- After a housing provider seeks to terminate the resident’s lease or tenancy due to an animal’s presence
- Housing providers must consider reasonable accommodation request even if the resident made the request after bringing the animal into the housing
Checklist for Landlords/Housing Providers
- Did the person request a reasonable accommodation — asking to keep or be able to have an animal that is connected to a physical or mental condition or disability?
- Does the person have an observable disability (or does the housing provider already have information offering valid reasons to believe that the person has a disability?)
- For non-obvious (or invisible) disabilities, housing providers can request information about 1) the disability and 2) the disability related need for the animal (landlords and other housing providers are not entitled to know a diagnosis but merely a connection between the disability and the animal)
- Some people voluntarily provide disability information; this should be considered
- Has the person requesting the accommodation provided information that supports that they do have a disability?
- Housing providers are not required to grant accommodations unless this information is provided
- Has the person requesting the accommodation provided information that supports that the animal does work, tasks, provides assistance, and/or emotional support with regard to the person’s disability?
- Housing providers are not required to grant accommodations unless this information is provided
If the request is refused/denied
Landlords and other housing providers must agree to a reasonable accommodation request as long as the disability claim is true and the request doesn’t create a hardship for the landlord or the other tenants.
If your request for reasonable accommodation is denied by the landlord, you can request that a government agency look into your claim that the landlord is discriminating.
If a reasonable accommodation request is denied because it would impose a fundamental alteration or an undue financial and administrative burden, the housing provider should consider next steps. This can include beginning an
interactive process to discuss possible alternative accommodations. Changes to animal policy are not always the only option for accommodating a disability.
Options for filing a complaint
- Electronically file a discrimination complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
- You could print a HUD Discrimination Form and mail it to the appropriate HUD office
- Check with your state to see if it has a government agency that investigates discrimination claims
What kind of housing is covered under the Fair Housing Act for emotional support animals/assistance animals?
Virtually all and any type of housing are included in the Fair Housing Act, and this includes public housing. There are several exceptions:
- Rental dwellings of four or fewer units, where one unit is occupied by the owner of the property (sometimes the owner will deny the assistance animals because of an allergy to animals)
- Single-family homes that are sold or rented by the owner (without the use of a broker)
- If the housing is owned by religious organizations or private clubs that restrict occupancy in housing units to their members
Keeping a record of reasonable accommodation requests
It’s always a good idea to keep a record of reasonable accommodation requests in case you might need copies of it later.
- People making reasonable accommodation requests don’t necessarily need to use the exact words “reasonable accommodation request,” however, it is recommended to avoid miscommunication with landlords and other housing providers
- People with disabilities might want to keep a copy of their requests and any supporting documents in case there is a dispute at a later time having to do with their request
- Landlords and other housing providers may find it useful to maintain a list of reasonable accommodation requests for their records
Housing Providers and the ADA
Housing providers in the U.S. may be subject to the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) laws in addition to the Fair Housing Act. For more information, check out the following resources:
- DOJ’s regulations implementing Title II and Title III of the ADA at 28 C.F.R. parts 35 and 36
- DOJ’s guidance on service animals
- Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA
- ADA Requirements: Service Animals
- U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development: Assessing a Person’s Request to Have an Animal as a Reasonable Accommodation Under the Fair Housing Act (PDF)