Assistance Animals in Housing
Table of Contents
Under the Fair Housing Act, tenants and homeowners with disabilities are allowed to have service animals and emotional support animals in their homes/apartments. They can also have them in common areas of a housing complex. You have this right regardless of whether your lease has a “no pets” policy. It also covers people who want to become tenants or homeowners and guests of tenants or homeowners.
A service animal is trained to do a specific job for a person with a disability. Only dogs or miniature horses can be service animals. Service animals recognize and respond to:
- A person’s disability,
- What they are doing, and
- What is happening around them.
An emotional support/comfort/therapy animal (ESA) is any animal that provides emotional support, well-being, or companionship that help symptoms of a person’s disability, such as anxiety or depression. The ESA is not necessarily individually trained. Instead, it offers support just by being present for the person with a disability.
We use the term “assistance animal” to mean both service animals and emotional support/comfort/therapy animals.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects you from discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, and disability. Because of the FHA, you can ask for a reasonable accommodation to help you with your disability. A request to keep your assistance animal with you at your apartment complex is an example of a reasonable accommodation. Refusing a request for a reasonable accommodation is discrimination.
Hotels and motels must give people with disabilities reasonable accommodations. But they are covered by a different law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Service animals are protected under the ADA, but emotional support animals (ESAs) are not. That means service animals must be permitted in hotels and motels. But emotional support animals may be excluded.
Homeowners associations (HOAs) must follow the FHA and the ADA. Like a landlord, an HOA must allow reasonable accommodations.
A reasonable accommodation is “a change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common use spaces.”
What does this mean?
Sometimes housing providers must change their rules so that people with disabilities can use and enjoy their home the same as people without disabilities.
How do you qualify for a reasonable accommodation?
- You must have a disability, and
- The reasonable accommodation must be necessary to give you an equal opportunity to use and enjoy your home.
Assistance Animal as a Reasonable Accommodation
You must be able to show a connection (aka a “nexus”) between the disability and the help the animal gives you (even if it is only emotional support).
You can ask for a change to the “No Pets” policy in your lease as a reasonable accommodation when you can show a disability-related need for your assistance animal.
- A guide dog for someone with a visual impairment;
- A service dog that alerts someone who is hearing impaired to a doorbell or alarm;
- A dog that is trained to provide rescue assistance to someone who is prone to falls;
- A miniature horse that pulls a wheelchair for someone with mobility impairments;
- A dog trained to alert someone to impending seizures; and
- A cat that provides emotional support for someone who experiences anxiety.
Types of Animals that can be Assistance Animals
Only dogs and miniature horses can be service animals.
Any animal “commonly kept in households” can be an emotional support animal or ESA. This includes: dogs, cats, small birds, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, other rodents, fish, turtles, or other small, domesticated animals traditionally kept as pets.
- Reptiles (other than turtles), barnyard animals, monkeys, kangaroos, and other non-domesticated animals are not considered “common household animals.”
If your emotional support animal is not one that is commonly kept in households, your housing provider may still need to grant your reasonable accommodation request if you can demonstrate the disability-related need for the specific type of animal. This is best done through documentation from your healthcare professional prescribing the specific type of animal you need and explaining why you need it.
An individually trained capuchin monkey performs tasks for a person with paralysis. The monkey has been trained to retrieve a bottle of water from the refrigerator, unscrew the cap, insert a straw, and place the bottle in a holder so the individual can have a drink of water. The monkey is also trained to switch lights on and off and retrieve requested items from inside cabinets. The individual has a disability-related need for this specific type of animal because the monkey can use its hands to perform manual tasks that a service dog or horse cannot perform.
Because assistance animals are not considered to be “pets,” they are not subject to a landlord’s size or breed restrictions. For example, although a landlord may have a policy that prohibits pit bulls from living at the building, a tenant’s assistance animal that is a pit bull is exempt from that policy. Similarly, although a landlord may have a size restriction that only dogs less than 25 pounds can live at the building, a tenant’s 80-pound service dog or ESA is exempt from that rule.
Am I required to pay a pet fee?
No. Assistance animals are not considered pets. Landlords must waive all pet fees or deposits for assistance animals. But if the animal causes damage, you might still have to pay for repairs.
How can I request a reasonable accommodation from a landlord?
Although it is not required, we strongly recommend you make the request in writing and keep a copy of the request for your records. In your request, state that you are a tenant with a disability and describe how your animal helps you with your disability. View sample letters.
You can ask for a reasonable accommodation for an assistance animal at any time, even if:
- You have not yet moved in.
- You already have your assistance animal in your home.
- You are facing eviction proceedings.
Usually, the landlord must grant the request (see below for some exceptions). Refusal to do so is discrimination.
When a tenant requests a reasonable accommodation, the housing provider may ask for some limited information to evaluate the tenant’s request.
If your disability and the disability-related need for your assistance animal is obvious or already known, your landlord cannot ask for any additional information about your disability.
These are some examples:
- Guide dog for someone who is blind;
- Miniature horse pulling a wheelchair.
If your disability is not readily apparent or known and the animal is a service animal, the landlord may only ask these two questions:
- Is the animal required because of a disability?; and
- What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?
If the answer is yes and you identify the task, the reasonable accommodation request must be granted. Landlords may not ask for additional documentation about your disability or your service animal. They also cannot ask for a “demonstration” of the tasks your service animal performs.
If your disability is not visible, and the animal is an ESA, your landlord may ask you to submit reliable information that you have a disability and a disability-related need for an emotional support animal.
- A disability determination from a federal, state, or local government agency;
- Receipt of disability benefits (SSI or SSDI);
- Eligibility for housing voucher because of disability;
- Information from health care professional confirming disability.
Even though housing providers may ask for documentation that you have a disability, they are not entitled to know your diagnosis.
If your disability is obvious or your landlord knows of it, but your disability-related need for the assistance animal is not, the landlord may ask you to provide reliable information of the disability-related need for an assistance animal. Your health care professional can provide this.
What kind of documentation should I provide?
The documentation should establish that:
- You have a disability.
- Your animal gives you some type of disability-related help or emotional support. Often, this kind of information comes from a health care provider.
Things your healthcare professional should include in their letter
- Your name,
- The relationship between you and the healthcare professional,
- That you have a disability that substantially limits a major life activity or a major bodily function,
- The type of animal(s) requested as a reasonable accommodation,
- How the animal(s) helps you (e.g., because it does work, provides assistance, performs a task that benefits you because of your disability, or because it provides therapeutic emotional support to alleviate a symptom or effect of your disability).
Things landlords may not request
- Your specific diagnosis,
- Access to your medical records,
- Detailed or extensive information/documentation related to your disability,
- That documentation or reasonable accommodation requests be provided using their forms, or any other specific way,
- Evidence that your assistance animal is “certified” or “registered” in any particular way.
Your landlord is never entitled to your medical records. Once you submit your request, a landlord must consider it and reply to you in a reasonable timeframe.
When can my request for an accommodation be denied?
Landlords must change the “No Pets” policy for you if you have an assistance animal unless:
- The animal would cause an undue administrative or financial burden;
- It would be a fundamental alteration of the service provided;
- The specific assistance animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others; or
- The specific assistance animal would cause substantial physical damage to property.
Because these exceptions must be based on the “specific assistance animal,” landlords cannot exclude an assistance animal based on assumptions about behavior of a certain type of animal, the animal’s breed, or a generalized fear of dogs/animals. They must consider only the behavior of the specific assistance animal in question.
Example A: A landlord owns an apartment building that allows pets, but not certain breeds, such as pit bulls. A tenant requests a reasonable accommodation for her service dog, which is a pit bull. The landlord believes all pit bulls are aggressive dogs. The service dog has no record of exhibiting aggression. The landlord must grant the reasonable accommodation for the service dog.
Example B: A landlord owns an apartment building with a “No Pets” policy. The landlord was attacked by a dog when she was a child and therefore has a phobia of dogs. A tenant requests a reasonable accommodation for their emotional support dog. Despite her genuine fear, the landlord must grant the reasonable accommodation and allow the dog to live at the apartment.
Example C: A tenant requests a reasonable accommodation in “No Pet” housing for their service dog. While walking their service dog one day, the tenant passes a neighbor on the sidewalk. The service dog suddenly lunges and bites the neighbor. The landlord may now be able to exclude the service dog based on this aggression.
What if my request is denied?
You may file a housing discrimination complaint with the following agencies:
- NC Human Relations Commission – (919) 431-3103 or toll free at 1-866-324-7474 or https://www.oah.nc.gov/civil-rights-division/housing-discrimination
- There are also local Human Relations Commissions in Charlotte/Mecklenburg, Durham, Greensboro, Orange County, and Winston-Salem. You can find additional contact information for these offices at https://www.oah.nc.gov/civil-rights-division/human-relations-commission
- Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) – (800) 669-9777 or https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/online-complaint
You have one year from the most recent date of discrimination to file a housing discrimination complaint with these agencies. You do not need an attorney to file a complaint with these agencies.
For more information about your housing rights, or to find an attorney, contact us.
You can also contact the Fair Housing Project of Legal Aid of NC – (855) 797-3247
You have two years from the most recent date of discrimination to file a housing discrimination lawsuit in court.
Learn more about requesting other types of reasonable accommodations in housing.
View sample letters.