By Maggie Zinkel, Fair Housing Intake and Grant Coordinator

In D.C. there are seemingly endless options for things to do with your dog(s), from walks on the Mall to pet-friendly restaurants and hotels – you can even take your dog with you on a Capitol River Cruise! Many housing providers allow at least one dog, and while there are often fees associated with having your pet with you, your housing search doesn’t end up being as limited by your furry friend as you might expect. As a dog lover and owner myself I am glad to see this trend in the city, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see it change.

What I would like to see change, though, is how housing providers handle reasonable accommodation requests from current and prospective tenants who live with assistance animals, especially emotional support animals (also sometimes called “companion animals”). An assistance animal is not a pet. Assistance animals provide therapeutic support to persons with disabilities, and they are not required to have any special training or certifications. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines an assistance animal as “an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability1.”

A person might need an assistance animal for a wide variety of reasons. Perhaps they experience severe anxiety or post-traumatic stress and their animal provides emotional support. Perhaps they have a disorder that causes frequent seizures that a dog could learn to detect. Or, perhaps they have limited mobility and a dog could perform household tasks for them like fetching things or opening doors so that the individual can continue to live independently. Whatever the reason for needing the animal, an assistance animal – whether it provides physical support in the form of performing tasks or emotional support – is a necessity. To deny a person access to a place to live or impose extra costs on them for having that animal is a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA).

So what are a housing provider’s obligations under the FHA with respect to assistance animals, especially emotional support or companion animals? In a nutshell, housing providers should treat a request for an assistance animal as they would any other request for a reasonable accommodation. Remember: an assistance animal is not a pet. If a housing provider has a “no pets” policy, species restrictions (e.g. “cats only”), or weight or breed restrictions (e.g. “dogs up to 25 lbs.” or “no bully breeds”) a reasonable accommodation must be made for an exemption to those policies in the case of an assistance animal, including an emotional support or companion animal. In addition, any pet move-in fees, pet deposits, or pet rent must be waived. It is unlawful to place an additional financial burden (i.e. costs outside of regular move-in and rental/utility fees) on persons with disabilities who require an assistance animal, including emotional support or companion animals..

Further, it is critical to understand that an  animal does not have to be a dog to fit the definition of an assistance animal under the FHA. The animal must not pose any direct threat or harm to others and must not cause substantial physical damage to others’ property3; but beyond those potential threats, any domesticated animal ought to be allowed as a reasonable accommodation to a restrictive pet policy.

If you are a current or prospective tenant and need an assistance animal, the ERC has published two toolkits to better help you understand your rights and obligations:

Sometimes housing providers ignore these regulations out of malice, but oftentimes the real issue is a lack of knowledge and/or proper training about the FHA, especially with regard to emotional support or companion animals.

Ultimately, finding a place to live in D.C. with an assistance animal should be just as easy as taking a tour of the city with your pet.

If you feel you have been a victim of discrimination in housing please contact the Equal Rights Center at: Voice: (202) 234-3062 or Toll Free: (866) 719-4372. To learn more about us and access our fair housing resources please visit www.equalrightscenter.org.

For the full HUD guidance regarding assistance animals please use the following links:

https://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/documents/huddoc?id=servanimals_ntcfheo2013-01.pdf

http://www.nacua.org/documents/FHA_Memo_ServiceAnimals.PDF

http://www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/library/huddojstatement.pdf

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