I often say that someday landlords will have to accept giraffes in their no pet buildings.  While it may sound ludicrous, more and more tenants are showing up at properties, leasing units and showing up after the fact with a plethora of different animals, all of which are considered service animals or emotional support animals.

If landlords are not extremely careful, they may find themselves on the losing end of a very expensive lawsuit. 

People who require service animals and emotional support or therapy animals are a “protected class” according to HUD housing rules.  Landlords cannot show any discrimination against them in the leasing process nor is it by itself reasonable cause for eviction, even if there is a clear and concise “no pet” policy in the lease.

For years, we have dealt with service animals.  They provide eyes for the blind and ears for the deaf.  The big difference now is, “emotional support or therapy animals” have been added to the protected class of animals a tenant is entitled to have.

We recently had a tenant lease a unit in a no pet building and a day after the lease was signed, we received a frantic call from another tenant informing us that a pit bull was now living in the building.  When we contacted the new tenant, we were informed the animal was service dog/emotional support or therapy animal.  Stunned, we asked for a letter from his physician which we are legally entitled to do.  He quickly provided us with a letter from his Chiropractor.

I spent weeks and weeks trying to penetrate the protection provided to him under the law, however, to no avail.  Our attorney concluded there was absolutely nothing we could legally do, including asking for a pet fee to cover any potential damage.  On further investigation, I located numerous web sites that, for a fee, would provide any tenant with certification of their need to have the animal of their choice. 

Here’s What You Need to Know

  • As previously stated, people that have service dogs or emotional support or therapy animals are a protected class.
  • There is absolutely no definition of what kind of animal constitutes the same.  It could be a snake, dog, cat or every kind of animal you can imagine.
  • Since you may not ask why the animal is needed for the condition it serves, you may ask the tenant to provide you with a letter from his medical professional indicating the need for the animal.
  • You may not charge for the animal nor can you collect any pet deposits for the same.
  • While your rights are limited, you can rigidly enforce the other rules and regulations of the property as specified in your lease.  If for instance, a dog barks while in the unit, it may break the building rule regarding noise or if a dog is aggressive or bothering other tenants in the building.  For these types of infractions, you want to issue a notice to comply and after the third warning, you may proceed with eviction proceedings just like any other tenant. [Be sure to speak with an eviction attorney.]
  • Other types of animals are not as clear cut.  If the animals are creating offensive smells that enter hallways, you may file a complaint with the tenant.  You are also free to do regular unit inspections for health and safety. 

If you have any doubt about what to do, contact your attorney for advice before taking action.  The last thing you want is to be at the wrong end of a lawsuit as more and more tenants have studied the chapter and verse of laws on this subject. 

Bruce Kahn, CCIM, CPM is the Managing Director of the Foundation Group Real Estate Services, a full service management and brokerage company.
Reprinted with permission of the Rental Housing Association UPDATE.