Service animals have long been legally permitted to live with the people they assist, even in housing that typically prohibits animals. People with emotional and mental disabilities have more recently been afforded similar rights.
Approximately one in four Americans have an emotional or mental disability. As science has repeatedly shown, the companionship, affection and support of an animal can relieve symptoms of an emotional or mental disability significantly enough to allow that person to conduct normal, everyday activities they would otherwise be incapable of conducting. Thanks to current federal housing law, people with a proper ESA letter for housing are allowed by law to have their ESA live with them in rental or purchased property even if that property normally prohibits animals. Moreover, a landlord or property seller cannot charge extra fees, deposits or “pet rent” or impose additional requirements or restrictions on tenants with ESAs beyond those imposed on tenants without them.
Just because you have these rights, however, does not mean it can always be easy to exercise them. Many laws and provisions regarding emotional support animals were only instituted relatively recently, and so many landlords are not fully aware of those laws or of what’s legally required of them as landlords. Therefore, the best way to make sure that your rights to have an ESA live in your home are honored and respected and that you can exercise these rights unobstructed is to make sure you are fully informed of these rights and how to make sure they are protected, as well as of your responsibilities as a lawful ESA owner. Read on to learn about your rights, responsibilities, requirements and restrictions, along with those of your landlord, regarding housing with an emotional support animal. If you are wondering can a landlord deny an emotional support animal and, if one does, what to do about it, you have come to the right place.
Sample of Letter for Emotional Support Animal
Fair Housing Act Emotional Support Animal
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (§ 504) was put into effect as Title VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act to protect anyone who rents his or her dwelling, regardless of religion, race, gender, age or other factors like disability, from discrimination by a landlord. Following this, in 1988, the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHA) was introduced into law, placing explicit prohibitions on housing discrimination against people with disabilities in particular, including people with special restrictions, needs and assistive aides. The FHA defines assistive aides to include assistance animals, which includes service animals, therapy animals and emotional support animals. Under the Fair Housing Act emotional support animal definition, these types of animals are exempted from many housing rules and restrictions imposed on pets.
As such, disabled persons who have a lawful need are permitted to have an emotional support animal live with them. These protections apply whether the disabled person in question is renting, purchasing or securing financing to purchase housing. The Rehabilitation Act applies to all subsidized housing, public housing and other housing programs, activities and services receiving federal assistance (except for landlords accepting only Section 8 vouchers) from which a tenant was excluded and refused participation due to his or her disability. The Fair Housing Act applies to almost all other types of housing, with the exceptions outlined further below.
A landlord may not refuse to rent to a person with a disability or impose different or additional requirements, qualifications or application procedures for people with disabilities than those without. Neither may a landlord impose additional charges, fees, deposits or rental terms on a person with disabilities. If selling a home to a disabled person, the seller cannot impose different or additional requirements or charges from those imposed on non-disabled people either. All this applies to people with mental or emotional disabilities as much as it does to people with physical disabilities.
Besides living with you in your place of residence, an ESA is allowed by FHA and HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) policies to enter any part of the premises where people are usually permitted to be, except if it would change the essential nature of the property’s services or cause an undue administrative, programmatic or financial burden on the landlord or property owner. This means your ESA is not just allowed in your apartment, condominium or house but in the lobby, stairwells and elevators, and yards of the property as well, along with any other so-called “common areas”.
Not only must a landlord allow a qualified tenant with an authorized ESA to rent from him or her, but he or she cannot discriminate about the type of ESA being permitted. A landlord cannot, for example, restrict ESAs permitted to reside on his or her premises to only certain species, like dogs, or only certain breeds, such as by prohibiting pit bulls or dogs larger than a certain size or weight. A landlord must accept a legally authorized emotional support animal even if it is a cat, rabbit, bird or any other animal (as long as it abides, of course, by all the requirements imposed on all ESAs and their owners, described further below.)
A landlord also may not require that your ESA wear any particular tags, harnesses or vests identifying the animal as an emotional support animal. Nor can a landlord require you to post any materials on, in or around your home to identify yourself as a disabled person or a person with an emotional support animal.
Landlord and Property Owner Violations
If a landlord or property owner violates your rights to have an authorized ESA live with you on property that normally prohibits pets, you have a couple of avenues of recourse. Within one year’s time from being denied residence with your ESA, you can file a claim with HUD and the department will investigate the complaint at no charge to you. If your case is brought to a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALA), you will be represented by HUD attorneys arguing your case on your behalf. The ALA will consider the evidence and arguments and make a determination. If the case is decided in your favor, the landlord or property owner could be ordered to do any or all of the following:
- Compensate you for damages, including pain, suffering and humiliation
- Give injunctive relief or relief otherwise equitable
- Pay your attorneys costs and fees up to a reasonable amount
- Pay a civil fine of up to $16,000 upon a first violation and $70,000 upon the third violation in seven years, to the Federal Government on behalf of the public interest
Alternatively, instead of filing a claim with HUD within one year of your ESA’s denial of residence, you could file a complaint against the owner with the U.S. Justice Department for discrimination or file a federal lawsuit within two years of your ESA’s denial. If you choose to file a lawsuit, it is advised to seek the counsel of a lawyer familiar with ESA cases. Your lawyer may first recommend you permit him or her to send a firm letter to your landlord on your behalf to see if the landlord can be persuaded to comply with your accommodation request and avoid a lawsuit.
For guidance and support navigating your options for recourse against continued discrimination, you could seek the counsel of an Emotional Support Animal Advocate or Fair Housing Advocate.
Of course, the first action to take if you are denied by a landlord, property owner or other housing administrator your lawful rights to have an ESA live with you is to make sure the person denying your request is fully aware of the laws regarding ESAs and the legal consequences of failing to comply with those laws. A landlord may simply be unclear on current ESA laws and merely need to be informed. Once you make clear to a housing official your ESA rights and his or her ESA responsibilities, he or she may then change his or her mind and choose to comply with those laws. Only after you have made your rights clear and a landlord has chosen to continue refusing you those rights should you consider alternative recourse. Note that, if you do pursue alternative recourse for failure to comply with ESA law, such as filing a complaint or a lawsuit for discrimination against a landlord, you will almost surely need to produce supplemental documentation backing up your claims.
Requirements to Have an ESA in Housing
To be allowed to move into no-pet or pet-restricted housing with an ESA, you must have a valid emotional support animal letter from a doctor, therapist, social worker or other mental health practitioner licensed to practice in the state where you live.
What an ESA Letter for Housing Must Contain
To be valid for compelling a landlord to make a reasonable accommodation for your emotional support animal, your ESA letter must state several things:
- That you have a disability or disorder recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) such as post-traumatic stress disorder, fears or phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, stress disorders, anxiety, panic attacks or depression
- That the practitioner penning the letter is treating you for this condition
- That this disability impairs your ability to conduct certain activities of everyday life, from living on your own to traveling by plane and including walking, washing, dressing or otherwise cleaning or caring for yourself, or speaking, hearing, sleeping, working or learning
- That an emotional support animal would help relieve some of the symptoms of your disability or disorder enough that you could engage in those activities
The ESA letter must be on the professional’s letterhead, contain the professional’s medical license number and contact information, bear the professional’s signature and be dated within one year of the date on which you attempt to use the letter to secure housing with your ESA.
Your ESA letter does not need to say what the specific diagnosis or disorder is, nor is a landlord permitted to ask you about it.
More specifically, landlords are prohibited by law from asking you as a tenant or prospective tenant any of the following:
- Whether you have a disability
- The severity of your disability
- For permission to view your medical records
- Whether you take medications
- Whether you have ever been hospitalized due to a medical disability before
- Whether you have ever been enrolled in a drug or alcohol treatment program before
- How long you have been in treatment or therapy for your disability or disorder
- How many treatment or therapy sessions you have undergone in relation to your disability or disorder
- Any other questions relating your diagnosis or symptoms beyond that which is stated explicitly in your ESA letter
One exception to these restrictions on landlords is if your disability is not known or clearly apparent, a landlord can ask you to submit documentation verifying that you indeed have a valid disability. Fortunately, a valid and legitimate ESA letter provides this documentation. If your ESA letter does not state that your disability is mental or emotional in nature, listed in the DSM-5 and impairs at least one life activity, however, the landlord can ask you to document those facts. Likewise, if your ESA letter does not state that an emotional support animal can help relieve at least some of those very symptoms that impair one or more life activities, a landlord can request more information or documentation confirming that fact.
Additionally, an ESA letter does not need to name and describe a specific animal as your ESA. As such, you are free to change ESAs, such as if your first animal dies or proves unsuitable for the role, and you can still present the same ESA letter as your proof of your authorization to live with that ESA. An ESA letter only affirms your qualifications to have an ESA, not identifies your specific ESA. To protect your ESA with more explicit identification, consider ESA registration with Certifymypet.com
By registering your ESA with Certifymypet, you and your ESA are both listed in the Certifymypet database of authorized ESA owners and their ESAs, including your ESA’s species and breed. This way, if a landlord uses the Certifymypet ESA letter verification service to confirm and possibly clarify your authorization for an ESA, not only will the landlord find your authorization but your specific ESA’s as well. This makes it all the harder for that landlord to refuse your ESA residence. Such protections are particularly useful for ESAs with unusual or controversial characteristics, such as pit bull breed dogs or particularly large or heavy animals or particularly exotic animals like ferrets, iguanas, pigs or miniature horses.
That said, while you need not disclose any details about the specific purpose for your emotional support animal, there must be one. That is, a specific purpose for your ESA, both a specific disability and a direct connection between relieving that disability or its symptoms and your ESA, must be present. You cannot, for example, just be approved for an ESA because it makes you feel good. There must be a specific impairment due to your diagnosed disability or disorder that your ESA distinctly helps to alleviate.
It is also important to note that you do not lose the right to have an ESA if you do not request an accommodation and present your ESA letter when you first sign your lease. Therefore, even if you only acquire the disability and need for an ESA after you take residence, you can still produce an ESA letter and request an accommodation at that time.
ESA Letter Verification
A landlord is allowed to verify the information in your ESA letter by contacting the professional who signed it. When you register with Certifymypet, you enjoy the benefit of a full ESA verification service available 24/7/365. Through this system, you. and your ESA are entered into a private, secure database so that a landlord or other housing administrator can call Certifymypet anytime of day or night to confirm your credentials and ask for any additional allowed clarifications.
The ESA letter you get from the doctor you see by registering with Certifymypet also helps provide greater confidence and peace of mind as you pursue housing with your ESA because it is written by a licensed physician, not just any LMHP, and so bears prescription-like authority. Additionally, because you met with the doctor one-on-one over video-conferencing, he or she knows you and your case, and will therefore be better prepared to provide you with an authentic and honest ESA verification.
Landlords’ Rights Regarding ESAs
While the FHA protects your rights to have an emotional support animal live with you in housing that otherwise may or may not have pets, there are also certain laws or provisions of those same laws protecting the rights of landlords when it comes to allowing ESAs to reside on their properties.
A landlord is allowed to consider the question of whether allowing you a reasonable accommodation for your ESA will cause him or her or the property owner any undue hardship or burden financially, programmatically or administratively. If a landlord makes a determination that allowing you a reasonable accommodation for your ESA will cause such a burden, he or she may deny your request. If you believe your request is denied unreasonably or unfairly, however, you do have the right to compel that landlord to prove the claim of undue burden in court or file a complaint against the landlord with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A landlord cannot, however, deny you residence with an ESA in violation of your legal authorization based on his or her doubts about your qualifications. However, the landlord does have certain recourse if he or she has such doubts. Besides verifying your ESA letter with the medical practitioner who wrote it, a landlord questioning your need for an accommodation for your ESA can ask you to have the doctor or LMHP who signed your letter fill out a Reasonable Accommodation or Modification Policy Form. A reasonable accommodation is defined as a necessary adjustment, exception or other change made to a policy or rule so that a person with a disability can have the equal opportunity to utilize and enjoy his or her home.
This is an official Health or Social Service Professional Form a landlord may use if your disability is not known or clearly apparent or the connection between your disability and your need for an ESA is not obvious or known. This form requests the same basic information provided in an ESA letter, including:
- Confirmation that you indeed have a disability
- Confirmation that your ESA is needed to allow you equal opportunity to live in the residence
- Confirmation that your ESA relieves at least one symptom or effect of the disability
In addition to these confirmations, the form also requests a brief description of the link between your disability and your need for an ESA.
While a landlord may not prevent a qualified tenant from moving into a property with a legally authorized ESA nor restrict a tenant to only certain types of animals as ESAs, a landlord does have the legal right and obligation to protect the health and safety of the people residing on his or her property. Therefore, if the landlord is able to reasonably determine that your ESA would pose a direct risk to the safety and/or health of other people on the premises, the landlord can deny that ESA residence. However, the landlord cannot outright deny a qualified tenant any ESA. If a landlord refuses a particular animal residence as a tenant’s ESA, he or she must still allow a different animal that does not pose a direct health or safety threat to others on the property as that tenant’s ESA.
Note that to determine whether a particular animal poses such a threat, a landlord must observe actual behavior of the animal in question evidencing that concern. In other words, a landlord may not refuse an ESA residence simply for fear that such an animal may pose such a threat. No matter whether the particular type of animal has a reputation for threatening behavior or the landlord has had previous negative experiences with other animals of that same type, a landlord cannot use fear of potential threats by the animal to refuse it residence; only if the landlord observes that specific, individual animal exhibiting threatening behavior.
Likewise, a landlord may require you to remove your ESA from the premises or even evict you, if your animal causes excessive disruption or if you fail to take necessary measures to make sure your ESA is not a bother to your fellow tenants. Barring these distinct and explicit scenarios, however, a landlord would be hard-pressed to establish that your ESA poses enough of a fundamental burden or change to justify denial of your rights to have that ESA live with you.
If a landlord does successfully ban your ESA from the premises, however, you can always get a new ESA and again be afforded your ESA rights and accommodations, the landlord again required by law to give that new ESA the full benefit of the doubt. Alternatively, a landlord with a provable, justifiable claim of undue burden could propose an alternate accommodation to meet your needs for you to consider. If a landlord is willing to consider a substitute accommodation, he or she is legally obliged to seek your counsel in coming up with the most suitable choice of alternate accommodation, based on the awareness that you know your disability and understand your needs better than anyone.
As the owner of an ESA, it is your responsibility to make sure that ESA is trained enough to behave itself both alone and in the presence of others. Your ESA must be quiet and non-destructive when left alone and must be calm and non-aggressive when around other people and animals, including children and pets. A landlord may not, however, demand you provide a training certification or other proof of your ESA’s training. That said, if your ESA ever does cause any damage to your housing unit or any common part of the dwelling, the landlord can reasonably and lawfully make you responsible for the costs of repairs. A landlord may not charge you, however, for reasonable wear and tear to the premises or common areas due to your animal’s residence.
Despite a landlord’s inability to refuse certain types of animals residence as ESAs, an insurance company may still determine an animal to be dangerous and a liability worthy of raising the landlord’s insurance premium. Generally, landlords are obliged to make all reasonable accommodations for a person with an authorized ESA and his or her animal. However, if the increase in insurance cost for allowing that ESA to live on the premises places an unreasonable administrative, programmatic or financial burden on the landlord, HUD may allow an exception to the landlord’s requirements to permit that ESA to take residence. The same applies if the insurance company threatens to cancel the landlord’s policy or substantially change the policy’s terms in such a way as to produce an unbearable burden on the landlord.
If this occurs, however, the landlord must file a claim with HUD to seek permission for this exception. The claim will then be investigated with the insurance company. If the insurance company does not account for assistance animals in its policies, HUD may bring it up on charges of disability discrimination. Upon filing a claim with HUD for an exception to ESA accommodation requirements due to an unbearable insurance burden, the landlord will also be required to switch to comparable insurance coverage if such exists that allows assistance animals of the given type without undue charges or requirements.
Landlords and property owners of certain types of properties are exempted from the FHA requirements to allow ESAs even if it goes against their normal pet policies, those being:
- Single-family homes rented or sold without the help of a real estate broker when the property owner owns only one or two single-family homes in total
- Properties with fewer than five units in which the owner occupies at least one of the units
- Properties owned by private clubs or organizations that provide housing only to their members
In addition, motels and hotels are classified as public spaces and are therefore governed by the rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) not the FHA. The distinct and notable difference between the ADA and FHA in terms of assistance animals is that the ADA only affords protections to people with physical disabilities who require service animals. Since emotional support animals are not considered service animals, they are not protected under the ADA. This does not mean a landlord may not choose to make an exception to a “no pets” policy, recognizing the therapeutic value of an ESA to a person with an emotional or mental disability. It just means the landlord is not required by law to do so.
One type of housing not exempted from requirements to make reasonable accommodations for ESAs is campus housing. Dormitories and other forms of on-campus housing are considered covered by the FHA. That means, if you are a student with a mental or emotional disability living on campus, you are entitled to have a legally authorized ESA live with you.