Fair Housing, Service Animals, and Companion Animals - Santa Rosa Landlord Tips - Article Banner

You may think you’re well-versed in fair housing laws when it comes to not discriminating against the protected classes covered by state and federal laws. You don’t use exclusionary language in your advertising and marketing, and you screen every application objectively and consistently. 

That’s a great start, but to really follow all of the fair housing laws on the books, you really have to dig into the details of what it means to offer everyone equal access to housing. 

One of the fair housing areas that are getting a lot of attention lately is protecting the rights of people with disabilities. 

This means more than wheelchair ramps and dedicated parking spots. 

It includes service and companion animals. 

When we talk about a service dog or a companion animal, we are not talking about pets. Rental property owners can choose whether or not to allow pets into their rental homes. But, there is no choice when it comes to animals needed by people with disabilities. 

Understanding the nuances of service animals and even companion animals is a huge part of staying compliant with fair housing laws. Educating yourself on those requirements is a lot different from deciding whether you’re okay with pets. 

It’s a good time to review fair housing laws and how they pertain to pets and service or companion animals in your rental home. Here are some tips on how to stay compliant.

Get to Know the Fair Housing Act and the ADA

The Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protect people with physical, emotional, and intellectual disabilities against housing discrimination. The laws apply to you as a landlord the same way they apply to property managers, real estate agents, brokers, lenders, insurance agents, and other professionals in the housing industry. 

According to these laws, you cannot deny a tenant the use of a service animal or a companion animal, which is most frequently an emotional support animal or a therapy animal. You have to allow those animals because they are accommodations, not pets. 

Pets are completely at your discretion. If you do allow pets in your rental property, you can charge a pet deposit or a pet fee. You can also charge extra rent every month and call it pet rent. These additional charges are not permitted when your tenant has a service or companion animal. 

Know the Difference between Service and Companion Animals 

For a clear definition of service animals, check with the federal government. 

According to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, service animals are defined as dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. 

Note that the definition references dogs. That’s important. Since 2011, only dogs can be designated as service animals. No tenant should claim their horse or pig is a service animal. It has to be a dog. 

Service animals will do a specific task for someone who needs assistance, such as:

  • Guidance for people who are blind
  • Alerts to people who are deaf
  • Wheelchair pulling for someone who cannot walk
  • Protection for a person who is having a seizure
  • Reminders to take medications

There are other duties a service animal may perform, depending on the person and the disability. 

You may have heard of emotional support animals or therapy animals. These are considered companion animals, and they’re a bit different from service animals. 

Companion animals are often dogs, but they can also be cats, guinea pigs, reptiles, birds, and other animals. These animals are not trained in any specific work or tasks, and they aren’t certified. You cannot identify a companion animal just by looking at it the way you can identify a service animal by how they’re trained or what they’re wearing. 

A companion animal’s job is to provide comfort or emotional support. They do not qualify as service animals under federal law, but they are still protected and must be allowed in your rental property by tenants who struggle with mental health issues. 

This definition of a companion animal does not affect or limit the broader definition of “assistance animal” under the Fair Housing Act, even if it’s not a service animal. Assistance animals can serve different roles and may be an emotional support animal, companion animal, or therapy animal. 

Familiarize Yourself with California’s AB 468 

A new law addressing emotional support animals went into effect on January 1, 2022. 

There have been complaints about businesses and individuals selling and misrepresenting emotional support animals as service animals. This law is meant to prevent anyone from selling special ESA certificates, service animal ID cards, vests, and harnesses that seek to mislead others into thinking the emotional support animal is a service animal. 

Because emotional support animals are different from service animals, it’s tempting for tenants to want to position their emotional support animals as service animals. This new law seeks to further clarify the distinction and punish those who attempt to falsely represent an emotional support animal as a service dog.

The new law requires that people and businesses who sell emotional support dogs or paraphernalia must include sales notices to clarify some points for the buyer. The law also sets forth stricter requirements for the licensed mental health professional who writes the official ESA letter to explain why the support animal is necessary.

Hopefully, this will make it more difficult for pets to be passed off as emotional support or companion animals and for those emotional support and companion animals to be passed off as service animals. 

Only Ask for Documentation from Tenants When Appropriate

In the cases of service animals, you can often tell why the tenant needs the animal. Obviously, a Seeing Eye Dog will be used by someone with a vision impairment. These animals come with their own paperwork, which can be provided to you if necessary. But, it should not be necessary. You can typically see that there’s a disability. 

Companion animals, however, do not look obvious or come to your property with skills and markings that are visible. 

An emotional support animal will be acquired at the direction of a healthcare professional. You can ask for documentation if the disability is not immediately apparent and your tenant is requesting an emotional support animal or a companion animal.

In these cases, you can ask your tenant for documentation from a medical professional explaining the disability and why the animal is required. Be respectful rather than adversarial. Your tenant is exercising their rights. Verify that the animal was prescribed by a medical professional, and move on.

Understand that Service and Support Animals are not Pets

As we’ve said, pets are not protected by any laws. Tenants have no rights when it comes to pets and while pet-friendly properties often rent faster and for more money, you don’t have to allow them if you’re worried about the risk and potential for damage.

Service animals are different because the law does not see them as pets. The law sees them as accommodations, which tenants with disabilities are legally permitted to expect from their landlords. 

When you’re renting your Santa Rosa property to a tenant with a service animal, remember:

  • You must allow a service dog into your rental home even if you have a strict no-pets policy. 
  • You cannot disallow the breed of dog. A service animal is a service animal, whether it’s a tiny terrier or a German shepherd. 
  • You cannot collect a pet fee or a pet deposit for a service animal.
  • You cannot charge pet rent for a service animal.

This is an important distinction, and a mistake will lead to fair housing complaints and legal troubles. Don’t try to treat a service or companion animal like a pet. 

Hold Tenants Accountable

Service AnimalTenants are still responsible for their service animals and companion animals. You should hold them accountable for any behavioral issues, messes, or damage that their animals cause. 

While you cannot collect a pet fee or pet rent, you’ll still collect a security deposit for any tenant moving into your property. You can use the security deposit at the end of the lease term to repair any damage that was done by the service or support animal. You can also require your tenant to clean up after the animal and ensure it isn’t a threat or a nuisance to other tenants or the property. 

Understanding how pets are different from service and support animals is not always easy. Fair housing laws are always changing and it’s important to stay up to date on the latest when it comes to pets and service or companion animals. 

We can help with any questions you may have about these laws and requirements, whether you need some help understanding fair housing laws or you’re interested in learning more about California’s new laws addressing service and support animals. We can also help you stay in compliance.

Please contact us at Prestige Real Estate & Property Management. We manage homes in Sonoma County, including Santa Rosa, Windsor, Sebastopol, Petaluma, and Rohnert Park.