August 3, 2016

Emotional Support Animals in residential rental properties

I regularly get calls from both tenants and landlords asking what rights they have regarding service animals and emotional support animals.

Under Washington law, “service animal” means an animal that is trained for the purposes of assisting or accommodating a disabled person’s sensory, mental, or physical disability.

An “emotional support animal” (ESA) is a companion animal prescribed by a licensed mental health professional, which provides therapeutic benefit fora  mental of psychiatric disability.

The distinction matters in public spaces, where businesses are not required to allow ESAs, but not when it comes to residential accommodations under the Fair Housing Act– the 1988 Fair Housing Act Amendments specifically include ESAs in their requirement that landlords provide reasonable accommodations to tenants or prospective tenants with disabilities.

In order for a tenant to qualify for an ESA, the tenant must have a letter from a licensed health professional that states the person is under his/her care, is emotionally or psychiatrically disabled, and that prescribes for the person an emotional support animal. A property manager or landlord may require this letter or a completed verification form. However, the landlord may not ask for proof that the animal is trained; an emotional support animal is not required to have any formal training.

If an animal is an ESA, a landlord may not refuse to rent to the tenant on the basis that the tenant has an ESA. A landlord may not charge a pet deposit or a pet rent (because the animal is not a pet). The landlord cannot require the emotional support animal to wear a vest or other article identifying it as an ESA. The landlord cannot refuse to accommodate the tenant because the ESA is of a specific species, breed or weight.

That said, a person with a disability may be charged for damages caused to the premises by their ESA. They also can be evicted if they fail to manage any unruly, destructive or aggressive behavior of their ESA.

If a landlord fails to comply with the Fair Housing Act, the tenant or prospective tenant can file a report with the US department of Justice or file a lawsuit for discrimination.