What is an emotional support animal? Are they trained? Who gets one, and who decides that? If you have been in property management in the last few years, you have probably asked yourself at least one of those questions while witnessing the surge in rental applicants stating that they have an emotional support animal, assistance animal, or companion animal. These terms are mostly interchangeable, and for the remainder of this post I will use the term “emotional support animal”, or “ESA”, to refer to all of them. Like so many things, there is a lot of misinformation about ESAs, and for-profit companies have popped up to take advantage of this. First Rate Property Management receives over 2,000 applications a year, many of which state they have an emotional support animal, so, being a Fair Housing Provider, training on this topic has been a priority. Hopefully we can help clarify some of those questions for renters and landlords alike.
An emotional support animal is not a pet, and according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, they also are not service animals. Service animals are dogs that are specifically trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, such as a Seeing Eye dog or a seizure response dog. Service animals have different guidelines, regulations, and laws that apply to them in regards to housing, which I will not be covering just yet. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, can be any type of animal and do not have to have any training of any kind, because it is simply their presence that helps alleviate one or more symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. When a person’s disability is not readily or obviously apparent, a housing provider may ask an applicant to provide reliable documentation of the disability and the connection between the animal and the disability. This documentation from the tenant is sometimes called a reasonable accommodation request.
A reasonable accommodation request is needed to establish two things:
- That the person seeking housing has a disability, i.e. a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
- That the person has a disability-related need for the assistance animal in the home, i.e. the animal performs a task for the benefit of that person or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more symptoms or effects of their disability.
If the reasonable accommodation request does not establish both of these, or if the request does not come from a reliable source, the request may be denied. If the request comes from a reliable source and establishes both that the person has a disability and that the animal is needed in the home because of the disability, then the reasonable accommodation request must be approved, and all pet fees and pet rent is waived, as well as any “no pet” policies or restrictions such as breed, weight, age, etc.
What is a “reliable” source? In essence, it is someone who is in a position to know. A reasonable accommodation request can be written by a counselor, a case worker, a doctor, a physical therapist, or anyone else who has an established relationship with the applicant and knows their limitations. For-profit ESA businesses have made this process incredibly complicated and difficult for both landlords and those with disabilities. These industries have profits in the millions. A quick Google search of “ESA letter” brings up a whole page of websites where people can purchase an ESA registration card, an ESA certificate, and even letters from healthcare professionals.
There is no emotional support animal registry, at least not one that can provide a valid reasonable accommodation request. Certificates also lack the required validity, though they can cost you upwards of $50. As for the letters that come from these websites, these are often written for the purchaser after a “quick 5 minute survey” and a payment of around $150. The majority of the time the healthcare professional that writes the letter has not had any personal interaction with the purchaser. Out of curiosity, I took a couple of these surveys and after answering “no,” “never,” and “rarely” to questions such as “Over the past two (2) weeks, how often have you felt more angry, grouchy, or irritated than usual?” and “Over the past two (2) weeks, how often have you avoided situations that make you anxious?”, I was still given the news that I was a “good candidate for an ESA letter.” This apparently meant they would write me a letter stating I have a disability when I do not, and any doctor who is familiar with me would agree I do not have any disability.
These ESA businesses are thriving off of misinformation, and many have disinformation on their websites in order to convince people to buy their product. It is not surprising that some applicants who state they have an emotional support animal are not aware of the actual law, specifically the Fair Housing Act, and that it is intended to protect those with disabilities. These websites are preying upon anyone who loves their pet, and especially upon those with disabilities who really do need an emotional support animal. If you have a disability, you should not have to pay a dime for your reasonable accommodation request.
Thankfully, laws are slowly starting to catch up. Virginia has passed a law that cracks down on these businesses and has already fined one counselor for providing a letter based solely on a brief online form, and an Oregon counselor was fined and reprimanded by the state board of counseling for the same thing.
It is important to remember that just because someone has purchased a letter or certificate from one of these companies, it doesn’t mean that they are not disabled, or that they are trying to “cheat the system”; it just means that they were misinformed and/or taken advantage of. When a housing provider receives a reasonable accommodation request that is not able to be approved, it is important to begin an open and respectful dialogue and to provide an explanation to the applicant regarding what is required and why what was provided is invalid.
NBC Article on Fined Counselors: https://www.nbc12.com/2019/06/21/its-just-so-rampant-therapist-fined-issuing-fake-emotional-support-animal-certification/
New York Times Article on ESAs: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/18/us/emotional-support-animal.html
HUD Notice on Assistance Animals and Reasonable Accommodations for Persons with Disabilities: http://pm101700.pmws11.com/servanimals_ntcfheo2013-01