Service and assistance animals aren’t pets—in a legal sense, they’re medical aids more akin to a wheelchair than Fido. This means that just as an individual who uses a wheelchair isn’t charged for accessible features in their housing complex, someone with a service or assistance animal cannot be charged pet fees.
The housing providers in two recent court cases have learned this lesson the hard way. Their example serves as an important reminder for community managers and landlords when handling animal accommodation requests.
Both the on-site property manager of a Virginia townhouse community and owner of the unit were charged with discrimination for refusing to waive pet fees and weight restrictions for an assistance animal. The residents initially submitted an animal accommodation request to the property manager but when he refused to budge, they approached the owner. The owner not only denied the request but also threatened, and eventually attempted, to evict the residents because of the assistance animal.
The residents filed a complaint with the Virginia Fair Housing Office. Attorney General Mark Herring’s Office of Civil Rights then filed a discrimination charge and the parties settled out of court. As a result of the settlement, the townhouse community must adopt non-discrimination and reasonable accommodation policies, attend annual fair housing training, and pay $30,000 to the residents in the case.
A prospective resident for an apartment complex in Hamilton, MO, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) after requesting an accommodation for her assistance animal as she was filling out the rental application. The property manager insisted that she would still have to pay several hundred dollars in pet fees even if she provided a verification letter, asserted that she didn’t look like she had a disability, and demanded to know what the disability was before discussing an accommodation. The individual refused to disclose her disability and did not complete the rental application. HUD is now in the process of investigating this claim.
Both cases emphasize an important fact: Pet policies, such as breed, weight, and size restrictions or pet fees, do not apply to service and assistance animals. Moreover, it is not for property managers to judge whether someone is living with a disability or has a need for the animal. Instead, it is their job to assess whether the verification letter reliably establishes the two requirements under Fair Housing Act standards: disability and related need for the accommodation.
Having an animal accommodation policy and protocol in place—and ensuring that all employees are properly trained on it—is critical for community managers to ensure they operate under the law, avoid penalties, and treat all residents fairly and without discrimination.
This article was originally posted here.
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