Millions of people rent accommodation in the United States, yet very few are aware of their rights when it comes to leasing and landlords. This becomes an even more crucial issue when potential tenants have disabilities as their rights need to be protected more than most. In the interest of defending the must vulnerable, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) was established within the broader Civil Rights Act of 1968. It’s been modified throughout the years, amended significantly in 1988, and now contains clauses on all kinds of disabilities and conditions, the most recent of which includes emotional support animals.
Therapy animals are not a new phenomenon. They have been employed by and for people in need for quite some time. The classic example is a guide dog, usually a Golden Retriever or Labrador, for a blind person. An emotional support animal is a different kind of pet. It is not specifically trained for any purpose but instead comforts its owner by being a nonjudgmental companion in times of need.
Emotional support animals can take the form of any species of animal and are certified by an emotional support letter from a registered physician or health care professional. They can be a new animal in the patient’s life or be an existing pet that already has a track record of providing benefits to their owner.
Understanding What the Fair Housing Act Protects
Like guide dogs and therapy animals, emotional support animals are protected by the Fair Housing Act. You can bring them with you onto any property without fear of discrimination. But to truly make the FHA work for you, it helps to know that the first line of protection it provides begins with the patient, not the emotional support animal. The initial right the Fair Housing Act protects is the right of nondiscrimination. Landlords are legally obliged to treat every potential tenant fairly, without bias against race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disabilities, both mental and physical.
If they don’t, they’re breaking the law and can be prosecuted. Many landlords are aware of this and follow the law accordingly. A minority do not. The first step in any renting situation is to know your rights, and this is the foundation of them. Anyone with a disability requires a safe and secure place to live, whether the disability in question is mental or physical. Emotional support animals, although a relatively new and progressive form of treatment, are viewed as assistive aids to these afflictions and must be treated as such.
Understanding Your Emotional Support Animal’s Rights
The second part of making the FHA work for you (and your emotional support animal) is knowing your pet’s rights as well as your own.
The resistance mentally ill people usually face when trying to bring an emotional support animal into rented accommodation is the lack of a visual disability. If somebody is blind or in a wheelchair, it’s easy to see what’s hindering them. If somebody suffers from depression or anxiety, it’s not so easy to visualize the affliction. Therefore, a landlord might try to argue that the emotional support animal is redundant or ask for proof of a specific disability. The Fair Housing Act makes provisions for this, too, and states that a potential landlord cannot ask for details or information related to the disability. The emotional support letter, signed by a registered physician, is proof enough in the eyes of U.S. law.
Your ESA can be any size, breed or species — within reason. No court is going to find a landlord at fault for refusing to allow a mountain lion to reside on their property! — and must be afforded the same rights as other service animals.
The FHA is applicable when you’re moving into a new dwelling with an pre-existing ESA or have been diagnosed and prescribed an ESA and want to continue living in your current accommodation. Either way, with an emotional support letter, the landlord must respect your right to live in peace with your emotional support animal.
It’s often a good idea to sit down and talk with your landlord before the animal comes to live with you. It can cause needless agitation if you bring the animal in without explaining how and why you’re doing it. In turn, you must make sure your animal behaves accordingly and doesn’t bother other residents or cause damage to the property. As long as you keep your animal happy and in line, pretty soon, the two of you should be living in harmony with your law-abiding landlord.
Much of the battle around accommodation and emotional support animals is the fact that they are not part of the mental health public consciousness yet. They are a new form of therapy, one many people don’t know much about. Once you calmly and explicitly explain to your landlord the clear points of the Fair Housing Act, along with presenting your emotional support letter, you should have no problem beginning a new life with your emotional support animal.