The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are jointly responsible for enforcing the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), which prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, and disability. Discrimination under the Fair Housing Act includes “a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford [a person with a disability] an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B).

The Fair Housing Act has been very clear that disabled residents (and applicants) have every right to request an accommodation (a change in rules or policies) or a modification (a physical change) that is medically necessary and does not cause a unreasonable burden to the property. One of the most common reasonable accommodation requests is for a service animal. These can come, for example, from a resident at a property which otherwise prohibits pets or from an applicant who should not be charged pet fees for a service dog.

Earlier this past year, the Department of Justice filed an action pursuant to the Fair Housing Act claiming that a senior housing community failed to make an exception to its no pet policy for a resident who suffered from severe respiratory problems, anxiety issues and a handful of other health problems. Despite receiving letters from at least four medical professionals explaining the value of the dog, the building refused to change its policy and made threats of eviction and fines. The resident passed away one month after the dog was ultimately removed from home.

The case settled in November 2012 and required a significant payment to the deceased resident’s spouse along with other ongoing compliance and fair housing training requirements.  This case is yet another cautionary tale about what can happen if management fails to evaluate and respond to reasonable accommodation and/or reasonable modification requests.

If one needs a service animal to ease the symptoms of a disability, he or she should request a reasonable accommodation, in writing, from the landlord, manager or other appropriate authority. The request should state that the tenant has a disability and explain how the requested accommodation will be helpful. In addition, the tenant should include a note from his or her service provider, such as a doctor or therapist, verifying the need for the service animal. The tenant need not disclose the details of the disability, nor provide a detailed medical history.

Note:  If a service animal does cause significant damage, the tenant can be held financially liable, but a landlord cannot charge an additional deposit or subject the tenant to an increase in their monthly rent.  Just as it would be inappropriate to charge a tenant who uses a wheelchair an additional or increased deposit or fees for potential damage to carpeting, it would be similarly imprudent to demand a deposit from a tenant who uses a service animal.

There are several ways that a person may file a complaint with HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development) or get further information:

  • Call 1-800-669-9777 or TTY 1-800-927-9275;
  • Complete an “on-line” complaint form available on the HUD internet site: http://www.hud.gov; or
  • Mail a completed complaint form or letter to:
Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity
Department of Housing & Urban Development
451 Seventh Street, S.W., Room 5204
Washington, DC 20410-2000