Business Counselor June 16, 2015

Property Managers and Owners “Do you know the rules about service and/or comfort animals?”

A guy and his dog walk into a bar . . .

No, that is not the beginning of a joke. It is a scenario that occurs frequently because of protections afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits privately owned businesses that serve the public from discriminating against individuals because of their disabilities. The ADA requires these businesses to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed.

But the ADA is not the only law that protects the disabled from discrimination. The Fair Housing Act applies to virtually all forms of housing, whether for sale or rent. Under certain circumstances, landlords and condominium associations must make reasonable accommodations, including permitting residents to live with assistance animals despite “no pets” policies.

Several prevailing trends highlight the importance of the Fair Housing Act’s requirement for reasonable accommodations. The baby-boomers are aging out of the workforce. Empty-nesters and retirees are leaving behind their suburban, single-family homes on large lots. They are moving to urban apartments and condominiums. As the members of this group move out of their homes, they may have little desire to give up the animal that has loyally provided them emotional support over the years. Landlords and condominium associations can expect more requests from residents to accommodate these animals.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you evaluate those requests.

To qualify for a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act, the resident must have a disability: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The United States Census Bureau reports that about 1 in 4 persons between 65 and 74 have a disability. Between the ages of 75 and 84 that number rises to almost 1 in 2.

The accommodation must be necessary to afford the disabled resident (or prospective resident) an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling. There must be some connection between the assistance the animal provides and at least one of the effects of the disability.

Landlords or condo boards considering requests should not expect a detailed description of the disability or an entire medical history. In some instances, the disability and necessary assistance will be obvious (for example, a guide dog for a visually impaired resident). In other instances, more information will be necessary (for example an emotional support cat for a resident who suffers from disabling depression or anxiety). If the existence of the disability or the need for the accommodation is not readily apparent, documentation from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker, or other health professional is appropriate.

Not every requested accommodation is reasonable. A request can be refused if the accommodation would pose a threat to the health or safety of others, result in unavoidable, substantial, physical damage to the property of others, pose an undue financial or administrative burden, or fundamentally alter the nature of the operation. That will rarely, if ever, be the case if the requested accommodation is permitting an emotional support animal such as a dog, cat, or bird. But there are no hard and fast rules. It is a fact-intensive and case specific evaluation.