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Throw Us a Bone: Clarity Needed on Emotional Support Animals

Emotional Support Animals

“He likes to give hugs,” explained Joie Henney to the Philadelphia Inquirer this year, describing his five-foot emotional support alligator, Wally. Wally likes to snuggle, and he helps with depression, Mr. Henney says, and his doctor agrees. If only Wally’s case was the exception, rather than the rule.

The National Apartment Association has long understood the value that emotional support animals (ESAs) have for disabled persons. The devil, as they say, is in the details. A lack of clarity in federal fair housing laws has created loopholes for bad actors to abuse the system to request an emotional support animal in housing, and a cottage industry of online outlets has flourished. These “services” produce the verification required by law for the right price.

Unfortunately, fraudulent accommodation requests for ESAs, a convenient way to dodge pet fees or restrictions in apartment communities, have been on the rise. These online outlets “certify” any pet as an emotional support animal sight-unseen for a nominal fee over the internet. All that’s required is a short questionnaire, and of course your credit card number. To illustrate just how stark this rise in claims is, the National Service Animal Registry (NSAR), a private commercial enterprise that sells certificates, vests and badges for helper animals, signed up 2,400 animals in 2011. In 2013, it registered 11,000. As of June 5, 2019, the NSAR has registered 195,771 service and emotional support animals. To put this figure into perspective, NAA is aware of more than 20 websites or online providers, including NSAR, that offer documentation to their customers in exchange for a fee.

In addition to the loopholes that allow for abuse, federal laws and relevant agency guidance do not give rental housing providers clear direction on how to comply. This gives owners and operators pause because if they make the wrong decision on a reasonable accommodation request for an ESA, it could result in a housing discrimination complaint and having to pay significant monetary damages to the resident.

Numerous industry groups, including rental housing, have made the case that the time is past due for the federal government to act. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been working hard on formal guidance clarifying the rules surrounding requests for emotional support animals. Common sense rules would go a long way to clear up the confusion that has surrounded this issue. For example, HUD should require that documentation must come from an individual who has a therapeutic relationship with the requesting party or provide owners and operators with a liability shield if an emotional animal, which was approved in good faith, subsequently causes injuries or damages on community property.

States themselves have become impatient waiting for the federal government to act, instituting a number of misrepresentation laws nationwide intended to curb illegitimate reasonable accommodation requests for emotional support animals. But we need action by the federal government to minimize abuse and restore accountability to help owners and operators manage these requests. Common sense reforms can make a better world for both apartment owners and their residents who benefit from emotional support animals.