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5 Tips for Apartment Shopping with a Support Animal

Support animals are more than just a pet, they're family and a big part of housing decisions.

Support animals are becoming more commonplace in public areas, from airports to movie theaters to hotels. But that doesn’t mean they’re welcome everywhere. A now-famous peacock named Dexter made headlines last year after United Airlines did not allow him onboard a domestic flight. And while restaurant and other business owners are legally required to accommodate service animals, they don’t have to do the same for emotional support animals.

There is a distinction between the two. Service animals are trained to perform tasks or do work for people with disabilities. Emotional support animals, also called therapy animals or companion animals, receive no formal training. However, they do provide therapeutic support for those with a qualifying mental, physical or intellectual disability.

Where housing is concerned, both types of animals are created equal under the law. If you have a service animal or an emotional support animal, you have the right to live in an apartment that has pet restrictions, thanks to the Fair Housing Act. Be that as it may, you might still be required to jump through some hoops. Apartment hunting with a support animal can be a little complicated, but here are five tips for making the process a bit easier.

Understand that it’s illegal for landlords to discriminate against you.

Landlords are legally required to make reasonable accommodations for assistance animals, regardless of their regular pet policy. In other words, you don’t have to restrict your apartment search to pet-friendly properties when apartment hunting with a service animal or emotional support animal.

“Some landlords may require a pet deposit for an emotional support animal; that’s not OK,” Steven Mlenak, a New Jersey-based attorney. “The key that I tell people is support animals are not pets, so anything that falls in line with the word ‘pet’ is not OK.”

Let’s say you find an apartment you love that allows one pet per unit. Your service animal or emotional support animal does not tick that box. You can have them and a regular pet, as well. The landlord also has no legal footing to put restrictions on the breed or size of your support animal.

The only time they have more wiggle room, according to Mlenak, is if the specific animal in question has shown a tendency for violence or property damage. One way to protect the property is by investing in renters insurance, which covers incidents like dog bites. Surprising to many, renters insurance is only a fraction of the cost of homeowners insurance. For example, the average renter in New Jersey pays around $200 annually, compared to homeowners who shell out $1,277.

Requesting to have your support animal live with you isn’t all that different from requesting any other disability accommodation, like a wheelchair ramp. Mlenak said the process begins by making the request with the landlord, who’ll likely provide a form for you to fill out. Legally speaking, you don’t have to complete it, but doing so may help move things along more smoothly.

Be prepared to prove you need a support animal.

Simply telling the landlord that you have a support animal and filling out a form isn’t usually enough to get approved. Be prepared to gather documentation from a medical professional to prove your animal is a legitimate support animal. If you’re at the starting line and your animal hasn’t yet been classified as such, you’ll have to demonstrate to a medical professional that you have a mental, physical or intellectual disability that limits one or more major life activities. You’ll also have to show that a support animal will help alleviate these symptoms.

“One of the common misconceptions is that you have to get a note from a physician; that’s not the case,” said Mlenak, adding that medical professionals like psychiatrists and therapists can also prescribe support animals.

Once you’ve completed these steps, you’ll need a letter from the medical professional confirming your support animal. Mlenak said the landlord has the right to ask questions in writing that are necessary to determine whether the tenant has a disability, and whether the request for the accommodation will help with that disability — but they are not allowed to request medical records.

“[The letter] need not be in depth about your condition,” he said. “All the prescribing medical professional needs to provide is such limited information as necessary to meet the definition. Simply saying the animal is for anxiety is sufficient.”

Steer clear of scams.

Google “emotional support animal certificate” and you’ll find a slew of websites claiming to provide quick, hassle-free certification for your animal that you can print out for landlords. Don’t fall for it.

“Those are bogus, and I warn people all the time,” Mlenak said. “You need an actual verifying medical professional that you actually see and that is prescribing an animal to you.”

These websites have enjoyed word-of-mouth success in recent years, largely due to the fact that some landlords don’t know the difference and will accept fake certificates thinking they’re real. Be aware of internet scams and go directly to your medical professional.

Be aware that landlords have to move on your application promptly.

If a landlord isn’t keen on accepting your support animal, they may drag their feet in processing your application. Instead of outright denying you, they might draw out the process in hopes that you’ll eventually give up and look elsewhere; something called a constructive denial. This isn’t acceptable.

“After the tenant provides the necessary information, the landlord has to either approve or reject within a prompt time period,” Mlenak said. “Nowhere in the law does it define what prompt would mean, which is always a problem, but it needs to be reasonable.”

If a landlord gives you a hard time, you can take legal action.

If you feel a landlord is guilty of housing discrimination, you’re within your rights to take legal action. Mlenak said hiring a private attorney is often the quickest way to a higher settlement. What’s more, some may be willing to represent you on contingency if they think you have a strong case and it’s likely that the landlord will be ordered to pay your legal fees.

The federal government also has free resources on hand. It’s wise to file a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). You can check out your state’s information page here. (Click on Get Rental Help to find additional tenant rights in your state.) Every American is entitled to the rights outlined by the Fair Housing Act, but your state may have supplemental laws that provide even more coverage.

Some final thoughts on apartment hunting with a support animal.

Searching for a new apartment is rarely a stress-free affair. Having a support animal complicates things a little more, but it’s nothing you can’t handle. Knowing your rights and providing the proper documentation is what matters most.

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