Understanding emotional support animal (ESA) laws when renting can be tricky. Do they qualify as pets or service animals? The answer is somewhere in between. There are certain ESA laws that grant legal protections for these animals and their owners, but not as many as service animals enjoy.
Dealing with emotional support animal situations can be stressful for both tenants and landlords, so it’s important to understand your rights and have patience when negotiating. Below is a complete guide to everything you need to know about ESA laws in your apartment.
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What Is an Emotional Support Animal?
Emotional support animals are companions to humans that help treat depression, anxiety, and a number of related mental health challenges.
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Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Animals
The key difference between an ESA and a service animal is that ESAs are not specifically trained to do a job that their owner can’t perform on their own. Emotional support animals are not viewed as essential medical equipment and are not there to provide anything besides companionship and emotional care. Therefore, ESAs do not need to be specifically trained, but a doctor’s note is required to register them and secure an ESA housing letter.
In contrast, service animals are seen legally as “medical equipment” because they provide an essential function for their owners who need assistance due to physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. While service animals are given extensive legal protections, emotional support animals are subject to more regulations.
Though people typically think of emotional support animals as cats or dogs, there are actually no specific breed restrictions to qualify. As long as the animal can be reasonably accommodated within a home and doesn’t cause a disturbance to others, they can be any type of animal species. Humans have been known to bond with a wide variety of creatures, and some of the more unique emotional support animals to date include llamas, alligators, and peacocks!
How ESAs Help People With Disabilities
As mentioned above, ESA laws provide fewer legal protections than service animals enjoy. However, ESAs are classified differently than regular pets and are given certain legal privileges.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) is a federal law governing the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords. Under the FHA, landlords may not turn away tenants who have a registered emotional support animal. Even if the apartment is under a “no pets” policy, landlords are still required to make reasonable accommodations for the emotional support animal under ESA laws. For even more information on renting with a disability, visit here.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) only concerns animals that perform specific services, and therefore emotional support animals are not protected by ADA regulations.
Applying to Rent With an Emotional Support Animal
If a tenant applies to live in a no-pets rental, they must be able to show proof that they own a registered, medically prescribed emotional support animal by producing an ESA housing letter.
ESA Housing Letter
An ESA housing letter is a signed statement from the tenant’s mental health practitioner proving that the animal companion is essential to their wellbeing and recovery. The letter can be signed by a doctor, PA, psychologist, social worker, peer support group, non-medical service agency, or a reliable third party that would be aware of the condition and can attest to the needs of the individual. Some landlords may also have their own paperwork that will need to be filled out by the tenant and their mental health practitioner.
There are specific ESA letter requirements that must be met in the documentation provided by the tenant, including:
- The signature of a medical professional, social worker, peer support group, or another reliable party
- A statement indicating how long the tenant has been a patient/group member
- An explanation of why the ESA is necessary
Tenant Protections Under the FHA
Under the FHA, tenants and their emotional support animals are protected from the following:
- Landlords cannot require the emotional support animal to undergo any specific training.
- Landlords cannot refuse housing to the tenant even if their property insurance doesn’t cover emotional support animals.
- Landlords cannot ask tenants to pay any extra rent or deposits for having the emotional support animal, though it should be noted that they can require payment for any damage done by the animal.
What If the Landlord Doesn’t Comply?
Renting to a tenant with an emotional support animal, especially in a no-pets unit, can be a trying experience for both parties. It’s important to communicate respectfully and make sure you have all the necessary background information as detailed in the ESA housing letter. If the tenant has talked to the landlord about their protections under the FHA and the landlord continues to refuse them housing, the tenant may sue the landlord for discrimination. Following laws as a landlord is crucial for a successful rental business.
In addition, the tenant may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the organization that oversees the FHA. This is an undesirable outcome for all involved, so it’s always best to try to reach an agreement before escalating the situation.
Reasons Landlord May Deny ESAs
As discussed above, landlords are only required to make reasonable accommodations to emotional support animals. There are a number of circumstances for which a landlord may reasonably deny an emotional support animal.
Animal Size or Type
A landlord may refuse to house an emotional support animal if the breed is dangerous. In addition, landlords may deny animals that are overly large and will not be housed humanely in the unit. An example of this would be an emotional support horse living in a 17th-story apartment.
Lack of Documentation
If the tenant cannot provide proof in the form of an ESA housing letter, then the landlord has every right to deny them housing. Unfortunately, people do try to fake emotional support animal letters, so it’s important for tenants to have their letters signed and dated on the official office letterhead of their mental health/medical practitioner.
If the emotional support animal is scaring other residents or even putting them in danger, it’s the landlord’s duty to protect the residents by making sure the animal leaves the property. Other tenants have the right to feel safe and secure, so it’s important to make sure emotional support animals are on their best behavior.
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Emotional Support Animal Laws FAQ
ESA laws for rentals can be tricky, so below are the answers to a few of the most frequently asked questions:
Can a Landlord Ask About a Tenant’s Disability?
No, a landlord may not ask about the tenant’s disability or their treatment plan. This is one of the protections stipulated by the FHA.
Can a Landlord Ban an Emotional Support Dog Based on Breed?
Again, no — the landlord cannot deny housing based on specific dog breeds. If the emotional support dog is too large for the space, poses a threat to other residents, or causes damage to the unit, then the landlord may take action.
Can a Tenant Have Multiple Emotional Support Animals?
Yes, a tenant may have multiple emotional support animals. Each would need to have its own ESA housing letter, and each would be evaluated separately to see if they meet reasonable accommodation standards.
Do Landlords Have to Accept Emotional Support Animals?
If the landlord receives a housing letter that meets the ESA letter requirements, they must make reasonable accommodations to accept the emotional support animal.
When Can a Landlord Legally Reject an ESA?
A landlord can legally reject an emotional support animal if:
- The tenant is unable to submit an ESA housing letter
- The animal is illegal in that state
- The ESA is destructive to the property
- The tenant submits a fake ESA housing letter
- The animal is too large for the residence
- The animal displays threatening behavior
Can Landlords Charge for Emotional Support Animals?
Landlords cannot ask tenants to pay any extra rent or deposits for having an emotional support animal, though it should be noted that they can require payment for any damage done by the animal.
Emotional Support Animal Resources
The following organizations and documents are great resources for answering any additional questions when it comes to ESA laws and apartment renting:
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) National Network
- Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Registration of America
- Emotional Support Animal (ESA) Doctors
- The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division
- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Guide to Renting With Emotional Support Animals
ESA laws can present a frustrating gray area, as their legal protections are in between regular pets and service animals. However, landlords and tenants should remember the rule of reasonable accommodation and try to work together to solve any rental issues.
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DISCLAIMER: TurboTenant, Inc. does not provide legal advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only. All users are advised to check all applicable local, state, and federal laws, and consult legal counsel should questions arise.
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