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Service and assistance animals under the Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act is a federal law that says, in part, that homeowners associations have to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities to prevent discrimination. Allowing members to keep a service animal or assistance animal is an example of reasonable accommodation.

Even if an HOA normally has a “no pets” policy or places restrictions on certain animals or breeds, it must make exceptions for service animals or assistance animals under FHA.

What is the difference between an assistance animal and a service animal?

According to the Humane Society of the United States, an assistance animal is one that helps to ease the effects of a physical or mental disability merely by its presence. It does not have to receive any particular training to offer this benefit to its owner.

On the other hand, a service animal is one that receives training to perform one or more specific tasks that a person with a disability cannot perform on his or her own. For example, a service dog may be able to retrieve items from tall shelves for a person in a wheelchair.

The FHA provides protections for both service animals and support animals.

How does a pet become a service animal or assistance animal?

While service animals have to receive special training, the only requirement to classify a pet as an assistance animal is a letter from a therapist or a medical doctor attesting to the benefits that the animal offers its owner in improving the symptoms of a disability.

Are there any breed or weight restrictions on service or assistance animals?

Under the FHA, there are no breed restrictions on service or assistance animals. This means the HOA has to accommodate a breed that it would otherwise not allow in the community. There are no weight restrictions on assistance or service animals either.

What does an HOA have to do to accommodate a member with a service or assistance animal?

If the HOA typically has a “no pets” policy, it must make an exception for assistance and service animals. If there would usually be fees associated with keeping a pet on the premises, the HOA must waive them for assistance and service animals.

A member who feels he or she has experienced discrimination by the HOA with regard to his or her service animal can file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, an HOA can also pursue legal action against the owner of a service or assistance animal that becomes a nuisance.