Emotional Support Animals: Know Your Rights
October 19, 2016
Updated May 5, 2022
3 minutes

Apartment owners and managers across the country strive to meet the reasonable accommodation requests of people with disabilities under the Fair Housing Act. However, the laws lack of clarity about emotional support animals can open the door to abuse and impose an unfair burden on property owners.

This issue clearly strikes a chord, as more than 200 people registered for NAA’s recent emotional support animal webinar. To help members with this issue, NAA hosted What the What? How to Approach Emotional Support Animal Requests on Oct. 13. The webinar featured Katie Wrenn, regional training and marketing director at Milestone Management and president of the First Coast Apartment Association, and Kirk A. Cullimore, Esq., board member and past president of the Utah Apartment Association.

During the webinar, the speakers helped members understand the basics of reasonable accommodation requests for emotional support animals and how to use the resources in the related NAA member toolkit. Owners and managers also learned how to craft policies that comply with the laws governing reasonable accommodation requests for assistance animals, and how to effectively communicate with medical and mental health professionals and other individuals who attest to a residents need for an assistance animal during the verification process.

In addition, a recent post on Property Management Insider tackled the issue of residents who falsely claim a pet is an emotional support animal to get around a no-pets policy or avoid pet deposits.

In the post, Lynn Dover, an attorney who specializes in fair housing law, reminds owners that residents must make a request for a reasonable accommodation and housing providers cannot ask the nature of the residents disability.

Housing providers may ask whether the resident is disabled as defined by the Fair Housing Act. In other words:

  • Does the resident have a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such persons major life activities?
  • Does the resident have a record of having such an impairment? or
  • Is the resident regarded as having such an impairment?

Remember owners and managers should not ask the resident to give the residents medical records or history. In some circumstances, housing providers may ask for verification but any questions should be limited to whether there is a nexus between the residents disability and the disability-related need for the animal. For more information on verification and the request process generally, see the NAA toolkit listed below.

Ms. Dover cautions that documents that say an animal is a registered service or emotional support animal are available on the internet and should not serve as proof of need for an assistance animal.

For apartment communities that allow pets, Dover suggests developing a separate set of rules for assistance animals, since they will probably have more access to common areas than nonassistance animals. However, assistance animal owners who let their animals run around off-leash, do not pick up after their animals, or have an animal that is aggressive or barks all the time should be warned about these violations. If the owner or animal behavior doesn't improve after the warning, the animal can be removed, but a replacement animal may need to be accommodated for example, an inside-only animal or a dog that doesn't bite or bark all the time. 

For more information on the topic, NAA members can download the NAA toolkit Emotional Support Animals: A Practical Guide to Reasonable Accommodation Requests (member login required). The toolkit contains the NAA/NMHC fact sheet on this issue; all relevant U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidance; a document to answer frequently asked questions; scripts that owners may distribute to ensure leasing staff members communicate with residents properly on this issue; and sample forms for residents who have been approved by HUD.

*A previous version of this article contained an inaccurate statement concerning requesting verification from a resident that the animal is needed due to a disability. Fair housing law dictates that providers cannot ask about the nature of disabilities.