Validating an emotional support animal (ESA) allows tenants with a disability to keep an animal in a rental unit. But landlords face the challenge of making sure the ESA letter is genuine.
Many companies offer ESA letters that certify emotional support animals or assistance animals. Unfortunately, landlords can find it difficult to tell the difference between a legitimate emotional support animal letter and a fake one.
To qualify for an assistance animal, a person must have an official letter from a registered healthcare provider. The letter confirms that the person requires a support animal or service dog. The reason could be for conditions such as depression, panic attacks, phobias, autism, ADHD, or physical disabilities. In addition, the letter gives tenants certain rights that other pet owners don’t have—the right to keep an animal even if the landlord has a “no pets” policy.
Remember to give your potential tenants the benefit of the doubt—they might not know their letter is fake either.
More on landlording from BiggerPockets
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Landlording & Rental Properties
What is an emotional support animal?
Assistance animals are trained or untrained animals that give emotional support or perform specific tasks. For example, a seeing-eye dog guides a blind or visually impaired person and may perform other essential tasks. Or an animal could give therapeutic support to a person with a mental disorder or emotional disability.
According to HUD, housing providers must provide reasonable accommodation to a person with a disability, including accommodating a service animal. This means that a “no pets” or “no animals” policy can’t apply to someone possessing a valid ESA letter. Additionally, it’s unlawful to require a pet deposit or increase rent due to an emotional support animal in the rental unit.
Having an ESA letter means that the animal is not a pet. Instead, it’s a therapy animal or support animal that performs specific actions to support a disabled individual.
The challenge of identifying fake ESA letters
Screening a potential tenant may require processing an ESA letter. However, it’s increasingly challenging to spot ESA scams. A 2018 report stated that there are a “plethora of shady companies who partner with unethical mental healthcare providers to sell ESA letters to literally any applicant.”
In addition, the report said ESA letter mills are a booming industry. The challenge facing landlords is spotting a fake from a legitimate document.
For example, an ESA letter must come from a licensed medical professional, like a therapist or doctor. However, some people can’t afford to visit their primary care physician or may not have one. In that case, they can get a legitimate ESA letter online.
But, of course, there are plenty of online ESA scams, and some disabled people are victims of the scam. Therefore, it makes sense to carry out thorough pet screening if a prospective tenant wants to keep an emotional support animal.
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How to tell if an ESA letter is legitimate
It is vital to make sure that documentation for an emotional support animal is legitimate. And it’s not just landlords that must make sure the document isn’t fake—tenants should also ensure that they get an ESA letter from a reputable company.
Here are a few tell-tale signs that ESA documentation could be fake.
- Instant service. It takes time to evaluate whether someone qualifies for an ESA. Instant approvals are a definite red flag.
- ESA registration. There is no legal requirement to register an assistance animal, and a registration number doesn’t mean the pet is an ESA.
- No healthcare provider information. ESA letters containing no contact information or healthcare professional’s license information are usually bogus documents.
- No contact information. A legitimate ESA letter should provide contact information. A landlord can use this as part of the screening process.
If you are a landlord, you can also use some of the above information to check an ESA letter’s validity. For example, does the ESA letter contain the contact information of the healthcare provider? Does the healthcare provider’s licensing information check out with your state’s professional licensing database?
If you’re a landlord, what else can you do to avoid an ESA scam?
- Pet screening service. Invite the prospective tenant to perform a pet screening online. Although this won’t confirm a service animal’s support status, it will help determine if it’s categorized as an ESA. Additionally, legitimate rental applicants with a service animal won’t mind doing the pet screening.
- Get official confirmation. You can request that the healthcare provider sends you the ESA letter directly. HUD states that “documentation from the internet is not, by itself, sufficient to reliably establish that an individual has a non-observable disability or disability-related need for an assistance animal.”
Landlords can also ask for additional information from prospective tenants to assess the validity of the ESA.
Can landlords deny tenants who have a real ESA letter?
You can’t deny accommodation requests to a tenant or potential tenant just because they have an assistance animal and a valid letter confirming an ESA. Not allowing pets in a rental unit isn’t a valid reason to reject a rental application or evict a person who has an ESA.
However, there are particular conditions when you can reject an application with an ESA.
- The animal is too large for the rental unit.
- The animal is not a domesticated animal or commonly kept in households. For example, the HUD guidelines prohibit animals such as monkeys, barnyard animals, and kangaroos as legitimate service animals.
- The building only has four rental units, one of which the landlord occupies.
- The animal harms others or causes significant damage to the building.
- The prospective tenant wants to rent a single-family dwelling, and the owner owns fewer than three single-family homes.
- The service animal would result in undue hardship to the landlord or property owner.
Before you take action against a tenant who claims to have an assistance animal, it’s always advisable to seek legal advice.