HUD Seeks Investigation of Websites Selling "Worthless" ESA Documentation
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson is seeking action against online companies that profit from selling sham assistance animal documentation at the expense of rental housing providers and renters who have legitimate needs. These companies’ documents are intended to justify reasonable accommodation requests for assistance animals (service animals and emotional support animals (ESAs)) in housing but are often used to skirt pet restrictions under false pretenses.
In a letter sent to Chairman of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission Joseph J. Simons and Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection Andrew Smith, Secretary Carson expresses several concerns in line with those of the apartment industry and asks the FTC to investigate some websites selling assistance animal verification documents. As HUD General Counsel Paul Compton states, “These websites are using questionable business practices that exploit consumers, prejudice the legal rights of individuals with disabilities, dupe landlords, and generally interfere with good faith efforts to comply with the requirements of the Fair Housing Act.”
For four years, NAA and NMHC have articulated the industry’s concerns about abuse by those who do not legitimately require emotional support animals. We continue to urge HUD to issue new guidance as more clarity is urgently needed in the face of growing abuse of the law intended to protect the rights of disabled persons.
In its March 2019 letter to HUD, NAA and NMHC emphasized that these companies make a profit by taking advantage of consumers who do not know what is required as proof for the need for a reasonable accommodation. Not only do these companies offer unnecessary certification and registration documents, they often provide the required attestation after completion of a simple online form and payment. Most consumers do not realize that these practices are illegitimate. An online form evaluated by a mental health provider or a single consultation alone does not constitute a legitimate treatment relationship. In short, these companies are less about helping disabled persons fully use and enjoy their housing and more about enabling bad actors to avoid pet restrictions and fees.
Secretary Carson’s November 6 letter further explained that: “These certificates are not an acceptable substitute for authentic documentation provided by medical professionals when appropriate. These websites that sell assistance animal certificates are often also misleading by implying that they are affiliated with the federal government. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their goal is to convince individuals with disabilities that they need to spend hundreds of dollars on worthless documentation to keep their assistance animal in their homes.”
NAA is pleased with HUD’s attention to this important issue and will continue to monitor the situation for future developments. We encourage all members, owners and operators, to wait for further guidance from HUD before altering any policies or procedures for evaluating reasonable accommodation requests for animals. While this announcement should not interfere with an applicant or resident’s right to ask for an accommodation for an assistance animal, remember rental housing providers have the right to request reliable documentation when the disability or disability-related need are not readily apparent.