Persons with disabilities have an equal right to housing as those without disabilities. It is illegal for a landlord to deny housing to a person because that person, or someone associated with that person, has a mental or physical disability.
Medical professionals have long recognized that animals can assist persons with physical disabilities, such as assisting blind or deaf persons. Recently, medical professionals have discovered the profound effects that animals can provide for persons with mental disabilities. Unfortunately, if a person rents housing, landlords are given the right to restrict a tenant’s ability to keep an animal in his or her rental unit.
However, federal laws allow persons with certain special needs, such as the mentally disabled, to keep an animal in a rental unit despite a "no pets" provision. This is because disabled persons are entitled to reasonable accommodations under federal statutes. Courts have held that a waiver of a "no pets" provision is a reasonable accommodation for a mentally disabled person who needs an emotional support animal to lessen the effects of his or her disability. If a landlord fails to allow an emotional support animal in rental housing for a person who qualifies under the statutes, the landlord violates the statutes and could owe damages to the disabled tenant.
To qualify under the statutes, a person must have a qualifying disability, the landlord must know that the tenant has a disability, waiving a "no pets" policy must be necessary to allow the tenant an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling, and the landlord must refuse to waive the "no pets" policy.
Mental disabilities, such as mental retardation, mental illness, and special learning disabilities, qualify under the federal statutes. Also, the mental impairment must affect the person’s ability to perform major life activities such as caring for one’s self, walking, or working.
The tenant must request a waiver of the "no pets" policy from the landlord, explaining that he or she has a mental disability and needs the emotional support animal to lessen the effects of the disability. A note from a physician to this effect is often used to inform the landlord of the disability and request the accommodation. Mere emotional distress that would result from having to give up an animal because of a "no pets" policy will not qualify under federal law. Instead, there must be a link between the animal and the disability.
Even if a person qualifies for a reasonable accommodation under the statutes, a landlord does not have to waive a "no pets" policy if doing so would cause a great financial or administrative burden, if a "no pets" rule is a fundamental part of the housing program, or if the disabled person is not able to follow general rules of tenancy. However, to date, a landlord has not been able to refuse waiving a "no pets" policy to a qualifying mentally disabled person because of any of the above reasons.
In addition, if a tenant compromises the safety of other tenants or their property, or if the animal poses a danger to other tenants, the tenant does not qualify under the statutes and the landlord does not have to allow the tenant in housing or waive a "no pets" policy.
For further overview on this issue, see the Legal Overview.
For an in-depth discussion, see the Detailed Discussion.