There are many good reasons for a no-pet policy, including concerns about odors, noise, safety, liability and property damage. But service animals are not pets, and you cannot exclude them merely because you have established a pet-free policy.
Service Animal Defined
Service animals help people with physical, psychological, or mental impairments, including visual impairment, hearing impairment, epilepsy, mental difficulties, and emotional problems. All kinds of animals, including dogs, monkeys, birds, and even miniature horses, work as service animals.
Although most people feel better in the presence of animals—petting a dog has been shown to lower blood pressure—a service animal does more than just help a person feel good. Service animals have training that lets them perform specific tasks the disabled person can't complete without their assistance. This includes helping guide the blind, notifying deaf individuals of sounds like fire alarms, and pulling wheelchairs.
Fair Housing Act
In the United States, discrimination in housing is prohibited by the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Fair Housing Act Amendments (FHAA). Landlords cannot refuse to rent to someone because of their race, national origin, religion, sex, family status, or disability. Because service animals are used by people with disabilities, the FHAA rules determine how landlords must respond to requests to have a service animal in a rental home. HUD has a statement online which explains how this law applies to landlords.
Almost all rental housing in the US falls under these regulations. If your property has no more than four units, and you live in one of them, your building is exempted from the law. If you own no more than three single family homes and you rent them directly (without using a broker), they are also exempt. Those are federal rules, but some states have more restrictive exemption requirements, so check with your municipality to learn exactly what rules apply to you.
Service Animal Requests
Simply stated, the FHAA requires "reasonable accommodations" to enable people with disabilities to have full use of their home. Accommodations are considered reasonable as long as they don't create significant financial or administrative burden. Allowing service animals is generally considered a reasonable accommodation.
There's no formally defined request process, but your tenant needs to ask you before moving the animal into their home. They don't need to give you access to their medical records, but they have to document the need for the service animal with a letter from their doctor or therapist.
If you waive your no-pets policy and allow the service animal, you do not need to waive other rules that apply to all tenants. For example, if you have a policy requiring tenants to keep off the grass, you can require tenants to keep their service animals off the grass.
Service Animal Request Denial
You can turn down a request for an assistance animal if the resident does not have a disability or if the disability does not require an assistance animal. You can also turn down the request if the specific animal in question is disruptive, directly threatens the health or safety of others, or may cause property damage that cannot be addressed by reasonable accommodations. These decisions must relate to the specific assistance animal and not be based on general concerns about size or breed.
If a tenant requests multiple service animals, you do not have to allow the request, unless the animals are necessary for the tenant to make full use of the premises.
If you do not allow a service animal, your tenant may take you to court. If tenants can establish that they have a disability, need assistance from an animal, and the specific animal they wish to keep is trained to provide that assistance, the court is likely to tell you to allow the animal.
The law requires reasonable accommodations so disabled tenants can make full use of their homes; service animals are considered an accommodation. Most people who request service animals have a legitimate need. Review their requests with an eye to compassion as well as the law, so that everyone can live happily under your roof.
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