Service and Companion Animals: Tenant Rights

April 7, 2016

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April 11th marks the 48th anniversary of the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, a federal law that, in general, prohibits landlords from denying housing or otherwise treating people differently because of disability, race, color, national origin, sex, religion, and familial status.

Minnesota’s Human Rights Act is a similar state law. SMRLS housing attorneys use these laws in their daily practice to help low-income families obtain and keep their housing. For instance, attorneys often use fair housing laws to help a tenant with a disability request that the landlord allow an assistance animal in the unit because the animal helps to reduce the symptoms of the disability, whether it be blindness, deafness, depression, or anxiety.  

Although many people with disabilities rely on an assistance animal for support, tenants and landlords alike are sometimes confused about – or even unaware of – their legal rights and obligations.  

As a result, many tenants surrender their assistance animal because they are moving to a pet-free building, and landlords risk fines and penalties for violating tenants’ rights to keep assistance animals in their rental homes. For these reasons, it is important to know the rights, responsibilities, and requirements of fair housing laws as they relate to assistance animals.   

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Service or Companion Animal?

Service animals and companion animals assist persons with physical and mental and emotional disabilities.  A service animal can be a dog that guides a person with blindness. A companion animal can be a cat that helps to decrease symptoms in a person with depression, or anxiety. Dogs and cats are the most common types but other animals can be assistance animals.

What are a Tenant’s Rights to Have a Service or Companion Animal?

Tenants with disabilities are afforded protections under state and federal fair housing laws. These fair housing laws allow tenants with disabilities to request a reasonable accommodation to have any assistance animal in their rental unit even if the landlord has a “no pets” policy. 

What are the Requirements?

  • The tenant must have a disability. A disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life activities.
  • The tenant must have a disability-related need for an assistance animal. The animal must work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services or provide emotional support that reduces the symptoms of the disability.
  • If the disability and the need for an assistance animal are apparent, e.g., a guide dog for a person with blindness, the tenant is not required to provide documentation.
  • If either the disability or disability-related need is not readily apparent, the tenant must provide the landlord with documentation from a treatment professional.

Which Landlords Must Comply?

Most landlords must comply. This includes housing authorities, individuals, corporations, associations, and housing managers.

For What Reasons can Landlords Say No?

  • The specific animal poses a direct threat to the health or safety of other tenants, guests, or management that cannot be reduced or eliminated. 
  • The specific animal would cause substantial physical damage to the property of other tenants or management that cannot be reduced or eliminated. 
  • Landlords may not restrict or prohibit certain breeds, sizes, or put weight limits on the animal.

Can Landlords Charge a Deposit?

A landlord may not charge a deposit for the animal. If the animal causes damage to the unit or common areas the landlord may charge the tenant for the cost of repairing the damage or deduct it from the standard security deposit that is charged to all tenants.

What to do if my Rights Have Been Violated?

If you believe that your landlord has wrongly denied your reasonable accommodation for an assistance animal, you can seek legal help such as a court order requiring your landlord to approve your assistance animal and/or money damages.

If you have a low income, you may call SMRLS at 1-888-575-2954 to find out more about eligibility and services.

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