Does this sound familiar, “Yes, that’s right. This is Alan, my 12-foot alligator, and he is my ‘service alligator.’ He only mistakenly ate four cats and one mailman last week, but really, he’s just so sweet.”
I’m exaggerating of course, but what is not an exaggeration are accounts of “testing” phone call inquiries to manufactured home communities and apartments where the caller asks the unsuspecting manager if they have to pay a pet deposit if they have a service animal. And if the manager is less than informed or hadn’t had that second cup of coffee yet and instinctively responds, “Yes sir, all tenants with pets, have to pay a pet deposit.” Next thing the landlord knows a demand letter for a $5,000 settlement “offer” comes in the mail from some obscure boutique organization or law firm accusing the landlord of violating a boat-load of federal laws and regulations.
Well, just yesterday HUD published a new guidance document that seeks to provide a detailed landlord analysis and process to follow when faced with a service or assistance animal. And yes, there is a difference, as you will read in the guidance. For one, the guidance makes clear that only a dog can be a service animal, which it later goes on to define even more specifically. Now that isn’t to say other types of animals can’t qualify as proper “assistance animals,” and therefore must be allowed by the landlord, but the guidance also addresses these instances. The guidance addresses the documentation that can be required and authenticated for a legitimate service or assistance animal versus, let’s just say, some of the more circumspect documents printed off random internet sites which profess to be authoritative.
The new guidance titled: Assessing a Person’s Request to Have an Animal as a Reasonable Accommodation Under the Fair Housing Act, should be reviewed thoroughly by everyone who potentially interacts with new or renewing tenants and every owner.
TMHA strongly encourages all our community members to review this guidance with your legal counsel, and then make the necessary changes to your processes, operations, and documentation related to service and assistance animals.
The guidance works similar to a flowchart process and is much more specific and informative compared to previous guidance on service animals.
Additionally, for those operating in Texas, there is a specific Texas law related to the misdemeanor crime of fraudulently representing to the public a person has a service animal when the animal is not a service animal. For those who have not read Chapter 121 of the Human Resources Code, we would encourage you to also review these state laws.
Some owners have decided to cite the Texas law specifically on documents provided to tenants making them aware of the state law on Penalties for Improper Use of Assistance Animals, 121.006, Human Resources Code.
There are legitimate service and assistance animal needs for persons throughout this county, and they need to be afforded reasonable accommodations. However, there are also abuses by some who are misrepresenting their pets as being more than they are in order to circumvent pet deposits or premises animal restrictions, like prohibitions on dangerous dog breeds as pets.
Review this new HUD guidance so that the next time you receive a call or are faced with a prospective tenant with an "Alan" on a leash you know exactly the process to follow.