The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released guidance today that clarifies how housing providers can comply with the Fair Housing Act when assessing a request from a person with a disability to have an assistance animal.
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing against individuals who have disabilities that affect a major life activity. Under the law, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The act requires housing providers to permit a change or exception to a rule, policy, practice or service that might be necessary to provide people with disabilities equal opportunity to use and enjoy their homes. In most circumstances, a refusal to make such a change or exception, known as a reasonable accommodation, is unlawful.
A common reasonable accommodation is an exception to a no-pet policy. A person with a disability that affects a major life activity may require the assistance of an animal that does work, performs tasks or provides therapeutic emotional support because of the disability. Housing providers may confirm, if it is not apparent, whether the requested accommodation is needed because of a disability that affects a major life activity and is a reasonable request.
A 2019 survey by the American Pet Products Association found that 67 percent of U.S. households own at least one pet, an estimated 84.9 million homes. The assistance animal notice is designed to help housing providers by offering a step-by-step set of best practices for complying with the Fair Housing Act when assessing accommodation requests involving animals and information that a person may need to provide about his or her disability-related need for the requested accommodation, including supporting information from a health care professional.
The new guidance provides information on the types of animals that typically may be appropriate and best practices for when the requested animal is one that is not traditionally kept in the home. It also provides information for housing providers and people with disabilities regarding the reliability of documentation of a disability or disability-related need for an animal that is obtained from third parties, including internet-based services offering animal certifications or registrations for purchase. A host of dubious and predatory service and emotional support animal registries have developed over the years for assistance animal certifications. Landlords and property managers are entitled to reliable verification of a tenant’s need for an assistance animal and can require documents other than an online certification.
“Countless Americans rely on assistance animals to fill a void, providing individuals with disabilities with the means to have a home that supports their quality of life,” stated HUD Secretary Ben Carson. “In my many discussions with housing providers and residents impacted by the need for assistance, I recognized the necessity for further clarity regarding support animals to provide peace of mind to individuals with disabilities while also taking into account the concerns of housing providers. Today’s announcement responds to the ambiguity surrounding proper documentation for assistance animals with clarity and compassion to provide an equal opportunity for a person living with a disability to use and enjoy their home.”
Anna Maria Farías, HUD’s assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity pointed out that HUD has recognized for decades the rights of individuals with disabilities to keep an assistance animal in the home where it is a reasonable accommodation.
“Housing is unique, and a person with a disability that affects a major life activity might need an animal that provides support in ways that is not readily apparent to housing providers,” said Farías. “For example, veterans or senior citizens may need the assistance or therapeutic support of an animal to help them cope with the symptoms of a disability that affects a major life activity. This guidance will help housing providers to recognize the important way assistance animals can improve the lives of persons with disabilities and to meet their obligation to grant such accommodations.”
HUD General Counsel Paul Compton added, “With the Assistance Animals Notice, both housing providers and individuals with disabilities will better understand their rights and obligations under the Fair Housing Act regarding assistance animals, particularly emotional support animals. For housing providers, this is a tool that can be used to help them lawfully navigate various sets of sometimes complex circumstances to ensure that reasonable accommodations are provided where required so that persons with a disability-related need for an assistance animal have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy their housing. The guidance will help ensure that these important legal rights are asserted only in appropriate circumstances.”
Persons who believe they have experienced housing discrimination can file a complaint of discrimination by contacting HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at 800- 669-9777 or file a complaint online.