Millions of disabled Americans rely on service animals for physical and emotional support. But they did not always have a dog in the fight for fair housing. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires property owners and cooperatives to change no-pets rules so people with physical and mental disabilities have equal opportunities to use and enjoy their home.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently published guidelines for housing providers to comply with FHA when evaluating requests for service animals. They must make reasonable accommodations to the property if the applicant can document their needs. The guidelines require testimony from a licensed health care professional confirming therapeutic assistance the animal provides to the person with a disability.

Why the need for an animal?

About 60% of FHA complaints concern disability access. According to HUD, requests for service or support animals are rapidly increasing. The federal agency makes clear that these animals are not pets. Most are dogs trained to perform specific tasks for their owner. Other domesticated animals such as cats, birds, rabbits, hamsters and fish provide psychological support.

Even more exotic species can accommodate those paralyzed by spinal-cord injuries. Monkeys have hands dogs do not. They can fetch beverages from the refrigerator and insert a straw for their owner, retrieve items from the bathroom or switch on and off lights.

To bring on a service animal, residents must explain specific services such as:

  • Helping people who are blind or with limited vision navigate tasks
  • Alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to people or sounds
  • Pulling a wheelchair
  • Retrieving the telephone
  • Providing physical support and balance for people with mobility issues
  • Warning an epileptic of an oncoming seizure
  • Calming a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack
  • Reminding a mentally ill person to take prescribed medication
  • Giving a person with deep depression a reason to live

Some physical, visual, auditory or cognitive disabilities are easily observable. Not as apparent are emotional or psychological impairments. Housing providers cannot inquire about a person’s diagnosis. However, HUD says they can request information about their disability and need for a service animal. Lack of documentation may be reasonable grounds for denying the request.

Know how to provide fair housing

FHA prohibits providers from charging fees or deposits to accommodate a service animal. The law is meant to tear down barriers that prevent people with disabilities from accessing housing opportunities, including private residences and in federally funded facilities.

It can be challenging to approve the right applicants and avoid discrimination, especially as the law evolves and becomes more inclusive. If you manage a co-operative, it is important to educate yourself on the public policies governing fair housing and reasonable accommodations.