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Tenants’ Rights: Service and Emotional Support Animals

Your neighbor in the apartment below you has a dog, but you’re not allowed to have one based on the property owner’s rental rules. Is this fair? Yes, if the dog is classified as a service or emotional support/companion dog.

California and federal laws regarding fair housing and Americans with disabilities state that landlords must make reasonable accommodations for tenants with a physical or mental disability. Service and emotional support animals are considered one of the accommodations.

There are exceptions within the laws, however. For instance, the landlord may deny the animal if the:

  • renter is not legally disabled.
  • renter can’t provide, if it’s requested, reasonable medical documentation from a healthcare provider as proof of his/her disability.
  • animal poses a threat to the health and safety of others.
  • animal would cause physical damage to the property of others.
  • animal is not allowed under city, state or federal law (e.g., dangerous breed, exotic animal).

Landlords are forbidden to charge a deposit or fee for the animal and cannot limit the size, type or breed of animal. However, disabled tenants are liable for any damage their animals cause. Landlords also cannot ask for proof of an animal’s training since emotional support animals are not required to be trained.

Should a tenant or potential tenant who qualifies under the fair housing and disabilities laws and has a support animal be denied housing, he/she may take the landlord to court. If the tenant wins the case, it could be pricey for the landlord what with fines and the damages awarded the tenant.

Service vs. Emotional Support Animal

A service animal, usually a dog, is highly trained to provide a particular skill to its disabled human, such as guiding the visually impaired, alerting the hearing impaired, fetching items, opening doors, pulling a wheelchair, detecting imminent seizures, responding to panic attacks, and coaxing a person with depression.

An emotional support animal can be a dog, cat, rabbit, bird, lizard, miniature horse, pig, monkey or other. The animal provides its human who may be suffering from conditions like PTSD, anxiety, autism or depression with companionship, comfort, and a sense of calm, well-being and safety. They do not require training.

Fair Housing Council of Riverside County, Inc., which works to protect the housing rights of all individuals, started seeing in 2010 an uptick in phone calls regarding denials of service and emotional support animals in rental housing. The staff found from conducting a poll that there was a lack of knowledge on the subject, as well as many misconceptions.

Executive Director Rose Mayes says, “Discrimination regarding pets is the number one complaint we receive.”

According to Monica Lopez, program manager, as many as 200 of their discrimination cases involving disability include service or support animals.

When it comes to dogs, Lopez adds, “There’s almost always a problem with rental companies and their list of restricted/vicious breeds: Pit Bull, Akita, German Shepard or Doberman Pinscher. Or in some cases, it’s weight and size restrictions.”

These problems are not happening just in apartment buildings in inner cities. It’s widespread in the county from cities to suburbs to rural areas, from apartment and condo complexes to mobile home parks and houses.

How can these issues be resolved, or prevented in the first place? Lopez says there needs to be more education on the issue for both landlords and tenants who require service/support animals. She invites both renters and landlords to contact one of their four offices in the county for information and assistance (see fairhousing.net).

Fair Housing Council of Riverside County is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, not a government agency.

Editor’s note: This article was written by Jean Clement for Foster Army Animal Rescue‘s newsletter, “The Wet Nose News.”