Emotional support animals play an important role in helping you feel more comfortable throughout every aspect of daily life. Unfortunately, some housing managers and landlords are unaware of laws that govern emotional support animals and may attempt to reject pets based on strict “no pets allowed” policies. What are your rights under the Fair Housing Act? Is your ESA protected by law? Let’s take a closer look.
Understanding the difference between a service animal and an emotional support animal
Certified service animals including psychological support animals provide specific services or do specific tasks, like helping people navigate through public places or detecting an oncoming medical crisis such as low blood sugar or seizures. Certified service animals are always dogs, and they’re always highly trained and tested prior to certification.
Emotional support animals are as important as service animals. Even though no special training is required, they help people live better by simply being there to provide love and comfort. Almost any domesticated animal can be an emotional support animal, so long as it provides affection and companionship. Dogs are most common, but according to We’re All About Cats, many people have emotional support cats. Birds, miniature horses, rabbits, hedgehogs, and hamsters are examples of less-common ESAs.
Can my pet become an emotional support animal?
Emotional support animals come in all shapes, sizes, and colors imaginable, and they don’t have to be trained to handle a specific task so the answer is probably yes. You’ll need to get a note from a therapist or psychiatrist, which confirms that you have a mental or emotional need and that your pet is an emotional support animal with an important job to do. With proper documentation, you and your emotional support animal will have the right to live almost anywhere.
How the Fair Housing Act impacts you and your ESA
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law that governs rental housing. It requires landlords and housing managers to make “reasonable accommodations” for service animals. Furthermore, it states that people with mental or physical disabilities cannot be refused to house along with their certified service animal or their emotional support animal, even when homes have strict “no pets allowed” policies.
There are a few exceptions to the law:
- If your animal is too large for the house or accommodation, i.e. an alpaca, a llama, or a horse, the landlord does not have to accept it.
- If the building has four or fewer units and the landlord occupies one of them, they do not have to accept service animals or emotional support animals.
- If the home in question is a single-family house that is rented without the help of a real estate agent, the landlord has the right to refuse certified service animals and emotional support animals.
It’s worth noting that your documented emotional support animal should be accepted at hotels and motels that double as residences, as well as at emergency and homeless shelters.
Do I have to prove that my pet is an emotional support animal?
The short answer to this question is “yes.” Landlords have rights under the Fair Housing Act, and asking for documentation is among them. The good news is that any psychologist, psychiatrist, licensed therapist, or other qualified mental health professionals can provide you with an ESA letter stating that you have an emotional support animal and that you need its services. Some landlords ask for additional documentation, which your mental health professional can help you obtain.
Even though landlords can ask you to prove that your ESA is an essential part of your life, there are some things that they’re not allowed to demand. The Fair Housing Act states that landlords may not:
- Ask you about your disability
- Make you register your ESA
- Require specific training for your ESA
- Force you to pay additional deposit or rent for having an emotional support animal
- Refuse to house when their insurance doesn’t cover emotional support animals
It’s important to be aware that landlords and property managers do have the right to demand payment for any damages caused by your emotional support animal. Also, if your ESA is unruly or out of control, your landlord is allowed to evict you under FHA rules.
What to do if a landlord or housing manager refuses you and your emotional support animal
Landlords who are out of compliance with FHA may be sued for discrimination and charged under federal law. Start the process by ensuring that the landlord knows about the Fair Housing Act and understands that penalties will apply to them if they refuse to house you and your emotional support animal.
If the person refusing you is a property manager and not the property’s owner, alert the owner so they have a chance to correct the situation.
In the event that you aren’t taken seriously and the property owner refuses to rent to you, file an official complaint with Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and / or the U.S. Justice Department. You can also obtain legal counsel and sue the owner for discrimination.
Many landlords and property managers are aware of FHA rules surrounding emotional support animals and are happy to accommodate people who rely on them. Being open and honest is the best approach, and having an ESA letter ready before applying for a new rental can be very helpful. The law is on your side and in most cases, you and your emotional support animal should have very little difficulty finding a new place to call home.