Landlords and pets are a tricky business. On the one hand, you can see the landlord’s argument: The tenant is an impermanent factor in their lives who could move on at any given month. The landlord is the one who has to maintain the property and keep it looking attractive for future tenants. Having a pet in the midst could undoubtedly complicate things, especially if the pet’s owner has a nonchalant attitude toward property maintenance!
On the other hand, it seems cruel to forbid a person the companionship and joy of a pet, especially if they live alone. The law is the law, however, and landlords are free to forbid furry friends as they see fit — unless that furry friend happens to be an emotional support animal. Then the law is a different story.
Emotional support animals are a very specific kind of pet. In fact, for some people, they’re so much more than a pet; they’re a treatment and an ally in the fight against mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism. An ESA animal is similar to a therapy animal but is not specifically trained for their job. It offers constant comfort and companionship to its owner simply by being present and available and offering nonjudgmental, unconditional affection and loyalty.
Any animal can become an ESA animal. All that’s needed to avail of one is an emotional support letter, bestowed upon a patient by a registered physician.
The Fair Housing Act
Because emotional support animals are a form of therapy, like guide dogs for the blind or more traditional therapy animals that are used to treat hospital patients and prisoners, they are afforded special rights under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Emotional support animals can and should be legally brought with their owners into whichever accommodation they choose to live in, including rented houses, flats and apartments.
The law doesn’t stop there. It states that landlords cannot ask for specifics about the prospective tenant’s disability or ask that they mark themselves or their ESA animal in any way when on the property.
Also, if there are any deposits or fees usually included with bringing and keeping an animal on the property, these must be waived for emotional support animals.
But probably the most important decree in the FHA is the nondiscrimination aspect of the law. It would be an obvious decision for a landlord to just not accept a prospective tenant with an ESA animal on the grounds that it would save them a lot of hassle and potential property damage. By law, the landlord cannot do this. In fact, they’re not allowed to discriminate against anyone for any cause, be it race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability. If they do, they can, and should, be brought to court.
Being aware of this specific but crucial component of the FHA is the first step in successfully getting your landlord to respect your right as both a disabled person and as the owner of an emotional support animal.
Documentation You Need for the FHA
This means your landlord has no legal recourse to refuse you or your ESA animal rented accommodation — as long as you can provide the documents required for the traditional landlord-tenant interaction, such as references, proof of ID, etc.
Which brings us to another crucial aspect of the FHA, and one in which owners of emotional support animals must keep in mind at all times: the all-important emotional support letter. Whether you have an emotional support dog, cat, lizard or otter, it must be accompanied by an official document signed by a practicing physician. Without this, you and your ESA animal are powerless to avail of any of the benefits or protection offered by the FHA. In fact, in the eyes of the law, an emotional support animal is not legally an ESA without the letter.
As emotional support animals are a relatively new treatment plan for the mentally ill, a landlord might be skeptical of its relevance or authenticity. An emotional support letter and a copy of the main tenants of the Fair Housing Act should help them see their legal obligations clearly.
It also doesn’t matter whether you’re moving into a new place or if you’ve recently been diagnosed with a mental affliction, have been prescribed an ESA animal as treatment and want to remain in your current accommodation. The FHA still applies — as long as you notify your landlord through the correct channels.
All in all, it’s not on the patient or the ESA owner to relentlessly try and prove their point to their landlord. It would help if landlords began to see emotional support animals as they do guide dogs for the blind; however, because mental disorders are outwardly invisible, this is a hard obstacle to overcome.
However, as long as all the paperwork is correct and the emotional support animal isn’t too outrageous, then the law is on the patient’s side. It’s the landlord’s job to come to terms with ESAs and start adapting their rental policies to accompany them and their owners.