Emotional Support Animals and the Fair Housing Act

woman with arm around emotional support dog

Not too long ago, being disabled meant dealing with discrimination and an inability to access certain places or services. While improvements have been made to provide inclusion and understanding to persons with a disability, the use of service animals (SA) and emotional support animals (ESA) are still a misunderstood resource for those needing extra help.

One area where this issue rears its head is housing. While some landlords or buildings have no-pet policies, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) permits SAs and ESAs to reside in these properties. Before the establishment of the FHA, it was easier for landlords and institutions to discriminate against a person and deny them housing. However, the Fair Housing Act now ensures everyone is protected and can pursue housing wherever they desire, regardless of impairments or disabilities.

If you have a service animal or emotional support animal, it is helpful to understand exactly what the Fair Housing Act is. Not only can it help you access any type of accommodation, but it means you can rest assured that your ESA is able to live with you. The following covers everything you need to know about the Fair Housing Act and how it can protect you from being denied accommodation due to your support animal.

What is the Fair Housing Act?

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law established in 1968 to eliminate discrimination during the sale, rental, or financing of a dwelling. Race, nationality, and religion are all protected under this law, as are people with disabilities and individuals with children. The FHA helps people find appropriate housing even if their ideal market is limited due to accessibility issues or price.

The Fair Housing Act exists because some property owners can refuse to rent to a person due to discriminatory factors (see below). Through the FHA, people can choose where they want to live without fear that they are denied due to unjust considerations. While the property owner can deny renting out their property to a prospective tenant for other reasons (e.g. criminal history or a lack of income), factors such as gender, race, and family status cannot be legal considerations.

Overall, the Fair Housing Act protects those looking to rent or purchase accommodation from any housing provider, including the following:

  • Building lot owners
  • Real estate agents
  • Leasing agents
  • Rental managers
  • Financial institutions
  • Individuals selling their home
  • Contractors and developers

In other words, the FHA protects individuals seeking accommodation from discrimination. It also prohibits real estate, construction, financial and other forms of housing institutions from denying a financially capable prospect from purchasing or renting a home.

What The Fair Housing Act Protects

The civil rights movement (1954 – 1968) helped pave the way for the Fair Housing Act in terms of protecting minorities from not being able to rent or purchase housing due to race or skin color. Many view this as a necessary step towards ensuring equality among everyone, as it gives prospective tenants access to housing of their choice.

When it comes to the FHA, it can be helpful to know your rights before searching for your next place of residence. While the protected groups are more extensive than we cover here, the following are some common forms of discrimination that are protected under the Fair Housing Act:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Disability
  • Family status

However, the Fair Housing Act is about much more than protecting minority groups. It also protects those with mental and physical disabilities — including those with a service animal or emotional service animal — from being denied housing because of their condition. While factors such as race and religion are self-explanatory and the line between discrimination and fair opportunity is relatively simple, the issue of service animals and emotional support animals is more complex (see below).

However, it is important to note that both service animals and emotional support animals are protected under the FHA. A prospective tenant cannot be denied the right to housing because of their ESA or SA, regardless of the pet policy held by the landlord.

The Fair Housing Act and Service Animals (SA)

As mentioned previously, the FHA protects people with service animals, and this law assures that people can find appropriate housing for their needs.

A SA’s Role

A service animal is a type of animal — most commonly a dog — trained to assist a person with a physical or mental disability. For example, this can include guiding a legally blind person or recognizing the warning signs of an upcoming seizure in an owner with epilepsy. Service dogs can also be trained for specific tasks, such as fetching medication, searching a vacant room for potential threats, or providing tactile stimulation during a handler’s anxiety attack.

How the FHA Protects SAs

As service animals are not considered pets, apartments and housing developments — even those with no-pet policies — cannot discriminate against or charge additional deposits or fees to tenants with service animals. Denying housing to a person because of their service animal or not allowing it to live with them in the residence is prohibited by the Fair Housing Act.

However, damages caused by the animal while living in the dwelling can be the responsibility of the tenant to cover. It is important to work these details out with the landlord before agreeing to the lease. Anyone who is denied housing because of their service animal should first inform the landlord of the Fair Housing Act, and they may be able to take legal action if discrimination occurs.

The Fair Housing Act and Emotional Support Animals (ESA)

The Fair Housing Act also protects individuals with emotional support animals (ESA). An emotional support animal is an animal that helps patients with a mental health condition manage their symptoms, allowing them to live a more comfortable and stress-free life.

An ESA’s Role

The primary role of an ESA is to provide comfort and security. These animals are particularly beneficial for handlers with mental disabilities such as anxiety or depression or require support following bereavement or a traumatic event. However, while ESAs are valuable for physical and mental health support, their role is more like a pet than a service animal.

So, who needs or can benefit from an emotional support animal? As mentioned, an ESA is used to assist a person with a specific mental health condition, such as the ones below:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Behavior disorders
  • Learning complications
  • Post-traumatic stress

It is important to note that an emotional support animal is different than a service animal, even though they are both protected against discrimination by the Fair Housing Act. The main difference is that an ESA deals specifically with emotional and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, whereas a service animal is more highly trained and can assist with both physical and mental health disorders. While an emotional support animal is less trained than a service animal, but they still provide an invaluable therapeutic service.

How the FHA Protects ESAs

Because ESAs are like pets, one of the common misconceptions is that they are not covered by the Fair Housing Act; however, this could not be farther from the truth. Any animal that provides a health benefit and is prescribed by a licensed medical professional is covered by the Fair Housing Act. Therefore, no one with an ESA can be denied housing because of their animal unless it is too big to reasonably live inside the residence.

Required Documents for an Emotional Support Animal

Although ESAs and SAs are protected under the Fair Housing Act, landlords are permitted to ask for documentation. For emotional support animals, the most important document is the ESA letter, which is written by a licensed health care professional. This can include:

  • Psychologists or psychiatrists
  • Counselors
  • Therapists
  • Social workers
  • Nurses and nurse practitioners
  • Physicians and physician assistants

To obtain an ESA letter, you must meet with one of these licensed professionals who can determine whether you qualify for an emotional support animal based on the diagnosis of a mental disorder. An ESA letter can then be drafted up, stating why you need the ESA and how it helps with your disability. The letter must be on signed letterhead and provide key information such as your therapist’s license information and contact details.

The Fair Housing Act and Your Landlord

Honest and transparent communication between the tenant and the landlord is the best way to ensure a smooth living situation for all. Providing documentation and/or certification of your service animal to your landlord can validate that your animal is more than just a pet.

Another option is to register your animal with a reputable organization for service animals such as www.usserviceanimals.org. Although not required, registering will help others see your service or emotional support animal as the resource you need.

Also, when dealing with a landlord, bear in mind that under the FHA, there several are things they cannot do if you have an ESA or SA. This includes:

  • Requesting extra rent, deposits, or pet fees for having an ESA
  • Asking extensive questions about your disability
  • Asking you to register your emotional support animal (especially as there is no such thing as an “official registration” for ESAs)
  • Requesting “certification” for your emotional support animal. Remember: the only legal way to qualify an ESA is with the ESA letter
  • Demanding that the animal have specific training relating to a disability

If Your Landlord Refuses Accommodation

By law, landlords must provide access to accommodation if a person has a disability and if their support animal does not create health issues or hardship to other tenants. However, if a landlord refuses you accommodation even after they’ve seen the ESA letter, you have a few options.

The first is to file a discrimination complaint, which can be submitted electronically or via post to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). More information can be found on their website.

You can also file a complaint directly with state government agencies that investigate discrimination claims or through the National Fair Housing Alliance, which provides information about how to file a landlord grievance.

FAQs

What type of housing is covered by the Fair Housing Act?

The Fair Housing Act covers all types of housing, including public housing. The only exceptions are:

  • Rented accommodation with four units or less (and where one unit is occupied by the owner).
  • Single-family homes rented or sold by the owner without using an estate agent.
  • Housing that is privately owned by clubs or religious organizations that limit accommodation to their members.

What is required for landlords to accept your ESA?

All that is needed for a landlord to accept your emotional support animal is the ESA letter provided directly by a mental health professional or through us at US Service Animals. As mentioned above, the ESA letter outlines exactly why the animal is needed, which shows the landlord the concern is legitimate and important for the prospective tenant.

It is important for those with an emotional support animal to understand their rights as they pertain to the Fair Housing Act. Those less informed do not understand that an ESA is not just a pet and should not be subject to a pet policy. Instead, an emotional support animal is a form of treatment for those dealing with a mental health complication.

If a landlord violates the Fair Housing Act and discriminates against a potential tenant due to their emotional support animal, informing them about the FHA and presenting them with the ESA letter is enough to avoid any discrimination from taking place.

Can a landlord deny an ESA based on breed or size?

The short answer is no. Landlords cannot refuse you the right to rent or purchase a property based on the size and breed of your animal. The only time a landlord can refuse an animal or ask it to leave is if it is damaging or destroying property and/or causing harm to the other tenants.

Should I choose an ESA or an SA?

Although they are similar, there are differences between ESAs and SAs that make one more appropriate than the other depending on the person. It is crucial to know what makes each support animal unique and understand when to seek either an ESA or service animal.

An emotional support animal provides emotional support and comfort to its owner. An ESA can be any type of animal, including dogs, cats, horses, parrots, lizards, and much more. If the animal brings comfort to a person with mental health concerns, then it likely qualifies as a potential emotional support animal.

On the other hand, a service animal is more trained for a specific task, such as retrieving specific items or helping a handler walk safely in public places. A service animal is almost always a dog, which is different than an ESA (which can be nearly any type of animal). To become a service animal, the dog must be smart and undergo extensive training to ensure they are capable of what is often an incredibly important task. As such, they’re allowed in places that ESAs may not be, such as in the cabin of an airplane, free of charge.

How can I get an emotional support animal?

To get an emotional support animal, a licensed mental health professional must provide a recommendation letter that includes their professional information, an outline as to why the ESA is needed, and the date the letter is issued.

It must also be written on the mental health professional’s letterhead to be accepted and covered through the Fair Housing Act (see more below). For those who need an emotional support animal, obtaining one or having your pet become one can be done through the following process:

  • Call U.S. Service Animals
  • Provide details of the animal
  • Consult with a medical professional
  • Receive your doctor letter

The process is simple and can be completed rather quickly. All you need to do is give us a call and we can guide you through the process. The first thing we are likely to do is set up an over-the-phone consultation with a mental health professional to find out whether you qualify for an emotional support animal.

In addition, we will ask you to provide information pertaining to the animal you hope to become an emotional support animal. While the qualifications to be an ESA are not as extensive as a service dog, it is important for the animal to meet certain criteria, such as not being aggressive. However, almost every animal is acceptable as an ESA, and the information you provide is merely for documentation and to craft the recommendation letter for potential landlords.

Following your consultation with a medical professional, an ESA letter can be sent to you quickly through email. The letter allows you access to housing, even in places where there is a no-pet policy or your type of pet is normally restricted. The letter also allows you to fly with your animal on some airlines, assuming it is well-trained and not too large for the flight.

Final Thoughts

The Fair Housing Act helps potential tenants with emotional support animals get approved for housing without fear of discrimination from landlords due to their ESA. The purpose of the FHA is to protect individuals from discrimination when it comes to finding an acceptable home. This includes those with disabilities that may require emotional support animals.

Knowing your rights when it comes to this often-overlooked aspect can make finding your next home a much more simple and sane process. The best way to do this is to know what the Fair Housing Act says about your rights as a person with a disability.