By: Steven M. Williams
Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued its new guidance, “Assessing a Person’s Request to Have an Animal as a Reasonable Accommodation under the Fair Housing Act.” In the guidance, HUD sets out best practices for housing providers when confronted with a resident’s request to house a service or support animal. It also provides insight into how HUD investigators will handle complaints when a request for a service or support animal is denied.
Initially, HUD stated that there are two kinds of animals that are relevant to housing: service animals and “support animals.” In its guidance, HUD maintains the traditional definitions of these animals but suggests for the first time that service animals must be dogs (as is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act). If the proposed animal is not a dog, HUD says that it is not a service animal. HUD cautions, however, that the animal may constitute a support animal for which a reasonable accommodation must be granted.
HUD also discusses in the guidance which types of animals can be support animals. It has long been said that any animal (within some level of reason) could serve as a support animal. HUD appears to disagree with this, and states that a support animal should normally be “a dog, cat, small bird, rabbit, hamster, gerbil, other rodents, fish, turtle, or other small, domesticated animal that is traditionally kept in the home for pleasure rather than for commercial purposes.” If a resident seeks to have a “unique animal,” e.g., one that is not commonly kept in households, the resident “has the substantial burden of demonstrating a disability-related therapeutic need for the specific animal or the specific type of animal.”
In this guidance, HUD also considers several topics that are rarely discussed but are issues that housing providers sometimes struggle with. For example, HUD defines what constitutes a “readily apparent” disability, for which housing providers may not request verifying information. It also provides a list of “observable impairments,” which are “readily apparent,” such as blindness or low vision, deafness or being hard of hearing, mobility limitations, some types of autism, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy. It follows that HUD would not allow a housing provider to ask for verifying documentation of these conditions.
In addition, HUD addresses the often-asked question of who can be a verifier of a disability or the need for a service or support animal. In the guidance, HUD suggests that a verifier should be a health care professional with personal knowledge of the patient. BEWARE: This position is contrary to the position that HUD and the Department of Justice (DOJ) took in the May 2004 Joint Statement of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice, Reasonable Accommodations Under the Fair Housing Act. In that publication, which is not superseded by the guidance and remains fully in force, HUD and DOJ state that any person with actual knowledge can be a verifier. Housing providers are therefore cautioned not to follow the position in the new guidance until HUD addresses this inconsistency.
Consistent with HUD Secretary Carson’s recent statements about certificates and registrations that residents can obtain from the Internet, HUD states in the guidance that “such documentation from the Internet is not, by itself, sufficient to reliably establish that an individual has a non-observable disability or disability-related need for an assistance animal.” HUD cautions though, that some healthcare professionals deliver their services remotely, including via the Internet. Housing providers must distinguish between the two in order to make an informed decision about an accommodation request.
The guidance is easy to read and clarifies HUD’s position in many of the gray areas involving service and support animals in housing. I recommend that every housing provider review and become familiar with it. Knowing how HUD views reasonable accommodation requests will allow housing providers to make more informed and safer decisions on residents’ requests about service and assistance animals.
Steven Williams regularly represents landlords other housing providers in all aspects of their businesses. For more information, or with questions regarding this guidance, please contact Steve Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717.480.5302.