Emotional Support Animals and Renting (What Every Phoenix Landlord Needs to Know)

Updated May 12, 2021

Today, the topic of discussion is one that’s come up a lot lately. Emotional support animals are growing more common. As a real estate investor, you need to pay attention because it impacts how you rent your property and who gets to move in.

With emotional support animals, there have been many laws and regulations. There have also been a lot of people who are taking advantage of this. If someone has a pet and wants to avoid paying pet rent or a pet fee, calling that dog or cat an emotional support animal seems like an excellent way to save some money. It can also work in a tenant’s favor if they want to move into a no-pet property. The law doesn’t see emotional support animals as pets.

There are a few requirements for how to handle these animals, and today we’re talking in general terms about what you can and cannot do. Remember that things change quickly with laws and best practices, so stay in touch with your Phoenix property management company, or keep yourself educated on the law.

What is an Emotional Support Assistance Animal?

An Emotional Support Animal (ESA) is an animal (often a dog) that provides emotional support and helps the primary caregiver (often referred to as the owner) deal with physical and emotional difficulties. 

They are not defined by their physical appearance but by their abilities and qualities to their human companions. For example, an ESA may assist the owner with mild to moderate discomfort caused by physical reactions to illness or disability.

Emotional Support Animals vs. Service Animals

Emotional Support Animals in your Rental Property

Emotional support animals are therapeutic animals that aid individuals living with conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, etc. They're usually cats or dogs but don't have to be. Only exotic animals and reptiles (not counting turtles) are excluded from being emotional support animals.

A service animal is trained to help people with disabilities, such as someone who is blind, a wheelchair user, or at risk of having a seizure. Although you're most likely to encounter a service dog, not every service animal is a service dog.

Housing laws protect both emotional support animals and service animals. 

Emotional Support Animals and Medical Documentation

Emotional support animals meet a specific need for the people who own them. As a landlord, it is perfectly acceptable for you to ask for documentation that proves the therapy assistance animal is necessary for emotional support. A landlord cannot deny a tenant with a companion animal, even if there's a policy of not accepting pets. So, protect yourself and your investment by asking to see the documentation that proves it’s an emotional comfort animal and not a pet.

You cannot aggressively ask about a person's disability or why the animal's handler needs a therapy animal. But, you can request to see an emotional support animal letter (ESA letter) that states what type of animal is being used as an emotional support animal and the purpose of the animal. The ESA letter can come from various health care professionals (although not necessarily mental health professionals).

  • psychiatrists
  • psychologists
  • social workers
  • physician’s assistants
  • nurse practitioners
  • nurses
  • licensed counselors and therapists

Receiving documentation from a healthcare professional is satisfactory. Asking to call the provider of your tenant’s documentation is a violation of Fair Housing Laws and HIPPA. 

However, simply asking for documentation is not a violation of your prospective tenant’s rights, and it doesn’t violate any HIPPA rules. You’re not digging into the tenant’s medical history or asking them to prove a diagnosis or an illness. Your focus is on the animal, and the documentation you’re collecting will establish the role that the animal plays in your tenant’s life.

Beware of certificates that can easily be printed from a website or come from non-medical providers. You are entitled to get verifiable and authoritative documentation from a medical doctor or healthcare practitioner.

Avoid Legal Issues with Documented Policies

We always say to trust but verify. If a tenant shows up claiming to have an emotional support animal, take the steps you can take to document the animal and its need. Make sure you have a policy in place that addresses how you handle emotional support animals. This should be separate from your pet policy since the law does not see these animals as pets.

Check out the whole fair housing verbiage on emotional support animals if you’re not sure about what you should include in your policy. It’s not uncommon to have applicants and even current tenants who want to bring emotional support animals into your property. If you haven’t run into the situation already, it’s going to happen eventually.

Protecting your tenant’s rights is important. You also want to preserve the condition of your property and your business model. So, handle these things correctly. There have always been pets, and there have always been service animals. Now, new classes of accommodations must be made, such as emotional support animals and therapy animals. You have to know the difference between all of these things and, if you don’t, get in touch with a Phoenix, Arizona property management company, so you don’t end up violating the law.

Emotional Support Animals and Deposits

When you allow tenants to move in with pets, you might charge monthly pet rent. However, you cannot charge pet rent for an emotional support animal. You also cannot charge a specific pet fee or pet deposit. Remember - the law does not see the assistance animal as a pet.

You can still collect a security deposit that’s large enough to cover any potential damage that the animal may do while on your property. A higher security deposit isn’t a separate pet deposit; it’s what your tenant must pay before moving in to protect your investment. From a legal standpoint, you don’t have a pet moving in. Don’t charge pet rent, and don’t charge a pet fee. Stick to the security deposit and make sure it’s at least the equivalent of one month’s rent.

Conduct a background check on the assistance animal by asking for documentation. It’s fair to give the appropriate medical authority a call to verify the information you have is correct and legitimate. Part of your policy and procedure manual must address emotional support animals, so there is clear documentation available that describes how you operate in such a situation.

Emotional Support Animals and Reducing Liability

There are several surprising liabilities that landlords have to deal with, and one of them is dogs. If a dog on your property causes harm, you may be liable. If you’re concerned that someone’s emotional support animal may cause harm, then you could, in theory, take legal action. However, you are unlikely to prevail in court. 

In some cases, having an emotional support animal on your property will cause your insurance to go up or require you to get a new policy altogether. You could use the justification that the additional administrative costs of allowing an emotional support animal are too significant, but, again, the court is unlikely to rule in your favor. 

Fair Housing Laws and Emotional Support Animals

More generally speaking, when conducting tenant screening, you cannot deny tenancy if someone belongs to one of the following protected classes.

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Familial status
  • Disability
  • Religion

And, in many cases, there are fair chance housing ordinances that prevent the use of a criminal background check as a justification for denying a tenancy. Keep up to date with the latest rules to protect yourself from making any infractions.

What Should I do if Other Tenants Get Jealous That Someone Has a Pet When They Can’t?

pets in your rental property

First, you should explain that an emotional support animal and a service animal is a working animal and not a pet. Second, you should allow your tenants who would like pets to have pets. There are many reasons to allow pets

  • Most residents own pets. 
  • A pet owner generally signs longer-term leases. 
  • A pet owner tends to make a great resident. 
  • Pets equal higher occupancy levels.
  • Owners can collect higher rent for pets. 
  • Pet deposits and total deposits are larger for pet-friendly rentals. 

Bottom Line on Emotional Support Animals and Renting

As with everything in the Phoenix real estate market, the policy and law on tenants with disabilities are ever-evolving. Things change, and it’s essential to keep up. Always be compliant and make sure you’re not violating the rights of your residents.

This is what we do here. We watch federal, state, and local laws carefully. We draft policies that protect our owners. If you would like some help with Phoenix property management, don’t hesitate to contact us at Mynd Property Management.

You can also visit our Facebook group of investors, which is called Master Mynd. It’s a real estate investors’ club, where you can exchange ideas with other owners. Check out our weekly podcast as well, called The Myndful Investor. We invite leaders in real estate and property management in Phoenix to talk about their success and, more importantly, their failures. 

There’s a lot to learn from this relatable content.

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