Do you have to allow emotional support animals in your condos?

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Squirrels, rabbits, ducks—even the notorious Dexter the peacock.

When many of us think of “emotional support” animals, we think of those headline-grabbing stories of the wacky and wild. Yet, for millions of Americans, animals can be a very real source of comfort, often eliminating the need for medication for anxiety, depression and a host of other afflictions.

But while the majority of these animals are dogs (and not large birds with their own Instagram accounts), that doesn’t necessarily make things easier for condo associations balancing a no-pets policy and the legitimate medical needs of residents.

So, what’s the answer?

Service animal vs. emotional support animal

First, let’s clear up the difference between an emotional support animal (ESA) and a service animal. A service animal – such as a guide dog – is extensively trained to help a person with some type of disability or physical limitation (usually blind or deaf). These are not pets, and they’re allowed anywhere a person is allowed; no condo can restrict these animals.

ESAs are still in a gray area. While legal protections are solidly in place for service animals, the laws are still evolving for everything else. Even the definitions can vary, but the Humane Society describes them this way:

“The emotional and/or physical benefits from the animal living in the home are what qualify the animal as an assistance animal.”

The organization even provides a few examples of ESAs (or what they deem “assistance animals”):

  • “A cat who can detect and alerts their companion of oncoming seizures.”
  • “A dog who alleviates a person’s depression or anxiety.”
  • “A cat who reduces a person’s stress-induced pain.”
  • “A bird who alerts their hard-of-hearing companion when someone has come to the door.”

What rules do you need to follow?

Under the Fair Housing Act, the federal government ensures certain protections and rights to renters and buyers. Along with race, sex, religion, etc., one of the protected classes is “physical or mental disability.”

Yet, the burden falls on the unit owner to prove that the need for an ESA is legitimate and necessary. A resident must provide documentation from a licensed medical professional that states the animal is indeed being used to treat or manage a physical or mental health condition. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recommends that the most reliable documentation comes from a provider who actually has a history of treating the resident asking for the accommodations.

As a landlord or condo board that has to follow these federal laws, you can’t deny a request for “reasonable accommodations,” even if you’re not sure if the resident truly has a disability or medical condition. However, the federal rules do allow you to ask for documentation of the condition, especially if it’s not readily apparent (which would be the case for anxiety, depression and other mental health issues).

This due diligence is especially important because fraud can happen. In fact, there are online sources that will provide this type of “medical documentation” with a few clicks and a small fee. So, while you can’t directly ask a resident about his or her mental condition, you should investigate the medical professional validating the need for a support animal.

When can you say no?

Even if the need is legit, there are situations where you can deny the request for an animal, such as when the request would mean major modifications to the property, or if the animal is causing substantial damage to the building or posing a safety threat to other residents.

Although as Attorney Benny Kass explains in the Chicago Tribune, sometimes the path of denial may be more risk than you’re willing to assume:

“Bottom line: Review the facts carefully if the owner is claiming the need for an emotional support animal. However, if there is any doubt, accept the animal. It is a lot less expensive than having to face a hearing claiming you violated the Fair Housing Act.”

Even if you end up allowing the animal, you still have the right to impose certain rules on keeping it—things like registering the animal, keeping it on a leash, licensing, etc.

The issue in general is a moving target. In fact, the state of Missouri was recently considering some new legislation that would make it punishable for a tenant or resident to lie about needing an ESA just to get a special accommodation for housing.

If you’re dealing with these types of requests, just remember to keep careful documentation of each step in the process, and closely communicate with your condo management partner to help you navigate the legal parameters.

That way you’ll know for sure if you can safely slam the door on Dexter the peacock.

Amelia Adamo is a property manager at Copaken Brooks, a full-service commercial real estate firm headquartered in Kansas City and serving the Midwest. The company’s full suite of services includes: condo management, property management, asset management, leasing (office, medical, retail, industrial and underground), construction management, investment acquisition and sales, tenant representation and HQ relocations, and development. Share your thoughts on our Facebook page or on Twitter @CopakenBrooks.

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Photo: Iain Lees / Digging out Snow Holes / CC BY-SA 2.0