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A Question You Never Want to Hear from Your Tenant – What You Need to Know About Service Animals

There are certain things landlords just don’t want to hear from their tenant.

One thing in particular that we will talk about in this blog is this question:

Can I get a service animal in the property?

Property management companies have actually had this conversation with tenants. It is real stuff, it’s humorous, it’s sad, it’s weird, but it’s real. Tenants are bringing in service animals.

The concept behind service animals is very straight forward; for example, a seeing eye dog. If a tenant comes in and they’re blind and they have a seeing eye dog, we all get that, that’s the legitimate idea behind service animals.

Now, has this been abused a little bit today? Yes, we certainly think it has been, so we’ll supply a little bit of information to keep in mind as a landlord considering some options around service animals.

Here are a few questions to test landlords’ knowledge.

  • When is an animal legally not a pet? Well, the answer is when it’s a service animal. Now, how do we define service animals?
  • Do tenants have to request a service animal at the same time they’re applying to the property or can they request it later on?

Well, they don’t have to make the request at the time of application. As a matter of fact, they can make the request for a service animal the day they move in, a week after they move in, a year after they move in. HUD specifically has guidelines around these types of issues as related to service animals. One of those says, the tenant may request a service animal at any point and time during the lease term.

  • Could a service animal request be denied if the breed is on property owner’s restricted list? What if the tenant request to bring in a service animal that’s a pit bull and the city that they’re in doesn’t allow pit bulls?

HUD specifically says breed restrictions are not legal as it relates to service animals.

Now what property owners must do, because HUD does have some guidelines around how to treat the request for a service animal and those owners should treat it legally as a reasonable accommodation modification request. HUD have guidelines on how to treat that. It should be treated same way as if it a tenant came in a wheelchair and said: “I would like a wheelchair ramp installed to lead up to my front door because I’m in a wheelchair and I can’t get up the two steps”. That’s the concept behind it.

Now, there’s a three criteria test to put that individual through, that request through to determine whether the owner is going to allow the modification or the accommodation of a service animal. Three simple, relatively simple questions.

  1. Is there a disability?

 That’s big, it’s rather straight forward, it’s important. There has to be a disability.

  • The accommodation or modification must be necessary to fully enjoy the property.

What that means is there must be a tie in between the disability and the request for the modification. Let’s go back to our person in a wheelchair. The person in the wheelchair says I would like a wheelchair ramp installed on my property. Well, we put them through the test:

  • Do they have a disability? Yes, they’re in a wheelchair.
  • Will the accommodation request, in essence, offset the disability? Will a wheelchair ramp offset the fact that there’s a step and they’re having difficulty entering the property? Yes, it will, so they meet those two criteria.
  • Is the pet offsetting the disability? Now, this can get a little bit tricky because disability can be mental, it can be physical, it can be emotional. So, if it’s a pet that helps reduce the stress level of a child can that be considered? Yes, that should be considered.
  • The request must be reasonable:

Now this is again where it gets a little bit tricky determining what’s reasonable. HUD does have some guidelines around what they consider reasonable and not reasonable which require to be carefully thought through.

HUD has guidelines around these things, for example, if the person’s disability is obvious, they can’t be asked about it. So, caution is required in those cases.

Can landlord charge an additional security deposit for a service animal? So, let’s say they are going to approve the service animal and say to the tenant, “of course, you can go ahead and bring in your service animal, but I’m going to charge you an additional pet deposit”. What did they just say wrong there? Remember, it’s not a pet, legally it’s not a pet. Rental property owners may not charge any type of additional rent amount, any type of additional security deposit for bringing in a service animal. Why? Because it’s not a pet. So, caution is advised. HUD takes this very seriously.

If you have questions on this, contact TrustArt Realty. You don’t want to stumble into this. You must take service animals. You’re required by law to do that. Be cautious with this and you will make sure that you can be a successful landlord following the HUD guidelines as it relates to service animals.