Assistance animals qualify as one of the more complicated topics in rental housing. Operators constantly wrestle with the distinctions between service and support animals, what qualifies as legitimate documentation and how to most efficiently manage their verification processes.
Many of those questions were answered and thoroughly dissected in the Assistance Animals in Rental Housing webinar, hosted by PetScreening last week as part of Fair Housing Month.
The discussion largely centered around HUD’s 2020 Notice for assistance animals, which serves not as an update to HUD’s long-standing 2013 Memo, but as a full-fledged replacement. The new Notice attempts to clarify some confusing and cumbersome items. Even with the Notice, there are still additional complex issues that require thought leadership and due diligence.
“They've broken down definitions to several topics, added text boxes and provided more examples to help with analysis,” said Brad Morris, chief legal counsel for PetScreening. “It’s been helpful in a lot of ways.”
Despite the more straightforward updated version, many of the concepts remain rather complex if legalese isn’t part of your everyday vernacular. As such, experts talked through many of the key topics outlined in the report and answered several inquiries from the audience.
Among the topics discussed:
- Unlike the 2013 Memo, which was silent on animal types, the Notice specifically lists several types of domesticated animals as permissible as support animals, the HUD Notice also specifies that there is just one type of permissible service animal (dogs only). In short, support animals typically help alleviate symptoms simply by being present with their owner while service animals perform specific tasks to aid someone with a disability (i.e. seeing-eye dog). Support and service animals have two distinct review processes, and the HUD Notice suggests a best practice is a prompt determination, within 10 days of receiving documentation from the requester.
- Pet fees and restrictions at an apartment community don’t apply to assistance animals, whether service or support. If the assistance animal is proven legitimate, the property team cannot charge the resident for them nor prohibit them based on breed, size, or any other characteristic.
- Nuances exist within the verification process for support and service animals. For instance, onsite teams can only request documentation for support animals, but not service animals. Teams also may never ask individuals about the specific nature of his/her disability-related to an assistance animal and can only inquire about the validity of the documentation provided by a third-party medical provider. Property teams also cannot require in-house forms to be filled out pertaining to service animals.
- Internet certificates and registrations, of any kind, are insufficient types of documentation to support a reasonable accommodation request for an assistance animal. Additionally, the HUD Notice states that if an individual requests accommodation for multiple animals, a relationship or connection between the disability and the need for each assistance animal must be provided.
While property teams are familiarizing themselves with the various intricacies of the assistance animal process, each rule has several layers and sublayers—and these are merely a few examples. As such, many teams are opting to outsource their verification efforts to third-party outlets much more familiar with the HUD Notice.
“I don't want to handle these sensitive documents and I don’t want my teams to have to handle them,” said Wendy Dorchester, senior vice president of operations for Pegasus Residential. “They don’t have the bandwidth or the time to research every document that comes through. I want my team to lease apartments.”
While operators often fear fraud in the form of altered assistance animal documentation and other conniving measures, direct cases of fraud are surprisingly low. Of the approximately 75,000 assistance animal requests processed by PetScreening, only about 150 met the definition of fraud. However, roughly 60% of these were returned as insufficient, often due to missing or incomplete information. Oftentimes when the request is insufficient, the owner realizes he/she does not meet HUD’s guidelines set forth in the Notice and moves the animal in as a household pet and, therefore, is subject to the apartment community’s pet policies.
Attendees passed along questions to the panel, many pertaining to unique one-off assistance animal situations. For instance, a student-housing operator asked how to navigate a situation when one roommate had an approved service animal and another roommate experienced allergies and asked for the animal to be removed.
“What a complicated quandary there,” said Victoria Cowart, director of education and outreach for PetScreening. “One person has a civil right under the protected class of disability. The other has an allergy that doesn’t rise to the level of disability, so you have a disability versus an inconvenience. So the best course of action in this situation is to try to negotiate with the residents to see if one is willing to take on a lease in another apartment. But when it comes to it, I’m going to err on the side of caution and concentrate more on the disability, which affects one or more life functions.”
The rental housing industry has made significant headway in understanding a complicated concept with many complexities. Education remains key—in addition to relying on the experts, when necessary—to successfully navigate the reasonable accommodation request and the review and verification processes for assistance animals.