Changes in public perceptions and levels of awareness of the issues surrounding emotional support animals have created a mandate for new state laws and federal policies. Earlier this year I wrote in this column about new measures being considered by the Florida Legislature as well as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD has now released its official guidance for assistance animal requests and the responses to such requests by housing providers under the Fair Housing Act.
The federal housing agency reported that complaints concerning denials of reasonable accommodations for assistance animals have been growing significantly, and they now represent one of the most common types of FHA complaints that HUD receives.
The new guidance is intended to serve as a tool for housing providers and those with disabilities. It covers many of the best practices for providers addressing requests for reasonable accommodations for assistance animals.
The guidance should help to make it easier for housing providers and individuals requesting an accommodation to gain a good understanding of the applicable laws. For requests for emotional support animals in which the underlying disability may not be readily observable, HUD states that housing providers may request information regarding both the disability and the disability-related need for the animal, but they are not entitled to know an individual’s diagnosis.
The agency’s guidance also addresses websites that sell certificates, registrations and licensing documents for assistance animals to anyone who answers certain questions or participates in a short interview and pays a fee. The FHA enables housing providers to request reliable documentation when an individual requesting a reasonable accommodation has a disability-related need for an assistance animal, and the HUD guidance clarifies that documentation from such websites is insufficient to reliably establish that an individual has a non-observable disability or disability-related need.
HUD also notes that reliable documentation would, for example, come from healthcare providers who have personal knowledge of a patient and who confirm their disability and need for an animal.
The new guidance also clarifies the types of animals that may provide emotional support or other assistance. It makes specific distinctions between animals that are typically found in households, such as dogs and cats, and unique animals that are not typically found in homes, such as livestock. Accordingly, those who are seeking a reasonable accommodation for a unique animal will face a substantial burden in demonstrating how it directly meets a disability-related need.
Legitimate requests for ESAs by disabled residents should be accommodated and protected by state and federal laws, but this new HUD guidance as well as a bill that is currently being considered by the Florida Legislature represent important measures to address how requests are verified and fraud may be prevented. Click here to review the HUD guidance on the agency’s website.
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