Guarantee Housing for your Assistance Animal: Step #1: Know Your Assistance Animal- Is it an ESA or a Service Animal??

Guarantee Housing for Your Emotional Support Animal or Service Animal

Step #1: Know Your Assistance Animal- Is it an ESA or a Service Animal??

So, the title is a bit tricky for some. “What is an Assistance Animal?” you might ask. It was in 2013 that HUD provided clarification on this term ‘assistance animal’ since many were confused:

“An assistance animal is not a pet. It is an animal that works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person's disability.” [FHEO Notice FHEO-2013-01, April 25, 2013]

Read it again slowly and you will see that HUD is basically stating that there is no need to distinguish any difference between a Service Animal and an Emotional Support Animal. The definition of assistance animal includes that of a service animal, and an emotional support animal. According to HUD, they are both equals! As long as the animal provides assistance that addresses and alleviates any symptom of the disability for the disabled person, then the animal is considered an assistance animal. Exactly ‘how’ the animal provides assistance does not concern HUD.

So, then why take any time to understand if your Assistance Animal is an Emotional Support Animal or a Service Animal if HUD doesn’t care about the distinction? You don’t have to worry about HUD- they understand. You have to be concerned with the Housing Provider who still thinks there is a need to make a distinction. You want to make it as easy as possible to be provided an equal opportunity fair housing, and a lot of that has to do with helping the landlord, the weakest link, understand that your disability and your assistance animal are both legitimate.

So, ask yourself- “Is my disability readily apparent, or obvious, to anyone?”

If your disability is a psychological or mental disability, like PTSD or TBI, then it is not so obvious to others, including your landlord who is going to question the authenticity of your disability. Likewise, if your disability is not obvious, it logically follows that the assistance your animal provides to help you with your disability is also “not readily apparent” or obvious to others.

ACTION: In this situation HUD makes it clear that housing providers are allowed to ask you for documentation from a ‘reliable source’ which verifies your disability and your disability-related need for your assistance animal. The best reliable sources are going to be from professionals in the mental health community, like a LCSW, a psychologist, or a LMHC for example. These professionals should be able to write a letter which would verify your disability, and what your assistance animal does to specifically alleviate the symptoms or effects of your disability.

Finding a mental health professional who actually understands the Fair Housing Act and can write such a letter to pass HUD’s scrutiny is actually very rare, though so many are writing such letters who have no fair housing training. Reach Fair Housing Advocates and we can recommend some mental health professionals in your state who have the training and experience.

*Special Note:* You should never be required to provide any of the following as a requirement for an accommodation request: a service dog “certificate,” or “registration,” or “proof of training,” or be required to permit access directly to your mental health professional. Contact FHA if you are experiencing this kind of discrimination.

What if your disability is obvious? What if you have a very obvious physical disability?

ACTION: If your disability is obvious to anyone who sees you, because it is physical and readily apparent, then you do not need to provide any documentation to verify your disability according to HUD. Reach FHA if you are being required to do such a thing- it is a violation of the FHAct.

What if your Disability is obvious, but the need for your assistance animal is not so obvious, or readily apparent, to the public eye?

ACTION: In such a situation you can be required to provide reliable documentation verifying what your dog, or assistance animal, does to address your disability. For example, a disabled person who cannot walk but claims his miniature poodle is his assistance animal might be required to verify what his dog does to assist him with his inability to walk, since the connection between his disability and the assistance the dog provides is not immediately obvious. To address such a requirement, the disabled person might have to acquire documentation from his mental health professional if the dog provides assistance related to his mental condition, unrelated to his physical condition.

What if your disability is obvious, and your need for your assistance animal is also just as obvious?

ACTION: According to the U.S. Department of HUD, you don’t need to verify anything. For example, a blind person using a ‘seeing eye dog’ would not have to verify anything- both the need and the disability are readily apparent.

This article’s purpose is to prepare you for the kind of documentation you might be required to provide to a housing provider. Don’t be surprised to be required to provide verification paperwork; it’s best to have your verification paperwork already complete and delivered at the time you make your accommodation request.

If your disability or disability-related need for your animal is not obvious, be prepared to provide documentation which would verify these elements during the housing process- this would best be from someone in the mental health field. Be prepared to provide your verification, or ESA Letter as some call it, via email or in written correspondence- FHA can help you with this.

*By the way- Colleges and Universities must adhere to the Fair Housing Act if you are a full time student living in a student dormitory or living in college owned housing and apartments. The ADA does NOT supersede the FHAct.*

Please reach Fair Housing Advocates if you need any help with your accommodation request process, or need help defending your housing rights because the landlord is subjecting you to unfair rules, regulations, or discriminatory policies because you are disabled and require an assistance animal. Reach FHA at or 877.838.9963. We provide No-Cost fair housing advice, training, education, counseling, and representation if you need us to help you file a fair housing complaint.

Patrick Coleman

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