Published 10 February 2019
According to our friends at the U.S. Census Bureau, 87,838 individual housing units were providing shelter for homeowners and tenants in Doña Ana County at the end 2017. Housing units include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums, mobile homes, apartments or a group of rooms or a single room that is used as separate living quarters. Just over 37 percent of those units, or just under 33,000, were occupied by renters.
Our friends at the Census Bureau also noted that 8.1 percent of those rental units were occupied by persons deemed to be under 65 years of age and disabled. By my fuzzy math, that’s just under 2,700 renters in Doña Ana County whose housing situations fell under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even more are covered by the act if you count people over the age of 65. If you are a landlord, you are also governed by the act when it comes to accommodating our disabled friends, family and neighbors. How so? The answer is abundantly clear.
The Fair Housing Amendment Act requires landlords, condominium associations and other housing providers to make reasonable accommodations for the disabled, including “reasonable accommodations for service animals.”
What’s a reasonable accommodation? According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Justice: “A reasonable accommodation is a change, exception or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice or service that may be necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common space”.
Okay, that’s clear enough. The next question is … what constitutes a service animal? The Fair Housing Amendment describes it as being “any animal that assists someone who is disabled.” Can a horse be considered a service animal?
Yes, according to the act. For practical purposes, however, we’re talking about animals of the canine variety here.
Service dogs come in a variety of shapes and sizes and provide numerous and diverse types of assistance for people with virtually any type of disability. “Service dog” is actually the generic term for dogs that help physically or mentally disabled persons. The animals are trained to provide specific types of assistance and are categorized by the type of assistance they provide. Here are just a few of their categories and job descriptions.
Mobility assist dogs pull a person’s wheelchair, carry items in a backpack, retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, and help his or her handler dress and undress.
Hearing dogs, on the other hand, are specially trained to assist deaf people; alerting their owners to such noises as doorbells, phones, crying babies, and even teakettle whistles.
Seizure alert/response dogs are trained to respond to a person’s seizures and either stay with the person or go for help. Some are even trained to push a button that dials 911, then bark when the operator answers the call.
A psychiatric service dog helps people with mental disabilities, such as agoraphobia (not being able to go outside alone) and can help their handlers stay focused.
There are also dogs that have been trained to assist people suffering from autism.
Some dogs are cross-trained to assist people with multiple disabilities, such as a guide dog that also assists with mobility.
While landlords and housing providers are bound by law to make accommodations for service animals, they are strictly prohibited from inquiring into the nature of a person’s disability. Landlords are not allowed to question applicants about a disability or illness, or ask to see medical records. Even if it is obvious that a tenant is disabled — for example, using a wheelchair or wearing a hearing aid — it is nevertheless illegal to inquire how severely the person is disabled. In fact, the only two questions landlords may ask are
Is that a service animal?
What type of service does the animal provide?
What if a landlord already knows about the disability and the need is “readily apparent or known”? In that case, the landlord is prohibited from inquiring further into the nature of the disability. For example, if it is obvious that a person is blind and that person asks permission to keep a seeing-eye dog on the premises, the permission must be given without further inquiry. The same holds true for disabled persons who request that a parking space be enlarged to accommodate a wheel chair.
Emotional support animals are in another category altogether. Landlords are allowed to require a doctor’s note attesting to the fact that the animal is needed for emotional support.
Well, there you have it. If you’re a landlord, and one of your tenants or prospective tenants asks to bring a service or emotional support animal onto your premises, you may want to think twice before you ask illegal questions or just saying no. The consequences for noncompliance can be steep — up to five years in prison and/or a $50,000 fine.
See you at closing.
Gary Sandler is a full-time Realtor and president of Gary Sandler Inc., Realtors in Las Cruces. He loves to answer questions and can be reached at 575-642-2292 or Gary@GarySandler.com