Know All The Angles
The American Disabilities Act, or ADA, has certain rules about those who have service animals. If you’re unfamiliar, someone is considered to have a disability provided they have any mental or physical difficulty which makes normal—or “major”—life activity difficult, or “impaired”.
As you can imagine, that’s pretty broad verbiage, and there are those who would take advantage of that which was written to be inclusive, rather than malleable. That said, there are some downright skilled disability attorneys out there, and if you suspect chicanery in the wrong potential tenant, you might have to contend with a lawsuit.
In fact, you may want to be pre-emptive and have an attorney specializing in disability law on retainer—depending on how often you have to deal with issues of this kind, that is. Following, what you can and can’t do will be briefly explored to help you understand what you’ll be dealing with regarding service animals.
Essentially, if a tenant has a service animal, a property manager is required to make an exception in a “no pet” policy for them. Now presently, a service animal is only defined by ADA as a dog, but there are definitely those pushing to make that definition broad as well. If that weren’t enough there are those who define a “service” animal in sneaky ways. “Support animals” are already protected in California.
Here’s something else you could encounter. Dog trainers may train their own “service animal”, then buy it the appropriate harness, etc. You need to determine if the animal is truly trained. This kind of vetting must be standardized in order to keep those with legitimate service animals from being suspicious of you, or getting litigative.
What you want to do is outline a process that has a bureaucratic element to it, but leaves documentation in line with the law, and ensures that existing or potential tenants aren’t trying to manipulate the system. The truth is, there are tenants who become disabled during their stay on your property. They have to get a service animal at that point, and if you kick them out, places like California will call that discrimination.
What You Can And Can’t Do
You might start out by making service animal authorization possible through what’s known as an “accommodation request”. Tenants should be required to tender this request in written form to the managerial personnel who handle induction or the addition of a pet. At that point, you or your staff should ask them for a letter from a legitimate physician that speaks to the necessity of such an animal for the tenant in question physical or mental wellbeing.
As it turns out, you’re not allowed to make tenants provide medical records, and you’re not allowed to ask about their specific disability. Also, you’re not allowed to speak to the doctor they bring to you, because there are privacy rights to consider. Here’s all you can ask: is an animal required owing to a disability? What can the animal do for you?
Provided the animal in question does not threaten others throughout your property, keeps from damaging the premises, doesn’t represent something too expensive for your property to accommodate (like a horse), and the tenant provides written documentation from a legitimate physician, property owners must allow the tenant to have the animal in the unit they’re renting.
Courtesy In Management
If it turns out the tenant can’t provide a physician’s note, then you can likely rest assured you’re not making any ADA violations by refusing to allow a pet on the premises. You can be cordial about it—for example, refer them to another means of housing; like this list of Arlington apartments.
Another way to go about this might be just to raise the minimum deposit on rental. Certainly some tenants will tear up your property, but in aggregate, the majority of costs which emanate specifically from a pet are predictable.
If you set your deposit slightly above that average, you’ll likely have no troubles. Just be sure you don’t refuse pets when someone with a legitimate disability, and a service/support animal, makes a request.