Q: I manage an apartment building that doesn't allow pets. I recently found out that one of the tenants has had a dog in his unit for the past three weeks. When I confronted him, he gave me a note from his doctor, which says that he's disabled and that the dog is actually an assistance animal. I understand that I have an obligation to accommodate tenants with disabilities, but this person violated his lease by not asking me before he brought the assistance animal to the property. Do I still have to allow the dog?
A: Yes, you must allow the assistance animal (and the tenant) to continue to reside at the property. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is responsible for enforcing the Fair Housing Act, has made it very clear that tenants with disabilities may make requests for reasonable accommodations at any time before or during their tenancies. The federal agency even recently sued a housing provider on behalf of a tenant who brought an assistance animal to the property without first telling his housing provider. Feeling deceived, the housing provider subjected the tenant to inappropriate inquiries and demanded that the dog be removed from the property. The housing provider is now facing civil penalties up to $11,000, along with damages to be paid to the tenant.
Though you too may feel deceived, it might be helpful to understand why your tenant may have chosen not to disclose his need for an assistance animal. While you may understand your fair housing obligation to grant reasonable accommodations requested by disabled tenants, not all housing providers do. It's not uncommon for a disabled tenant to be denied housing when he discloses his need for a waiver of a "no pet" policy. Housing providers also commonly deny requests for assistance animals made by in-place tenants, and at times begrudgingly agree to the request and then retaliate against the tenant until he decides to leave. It is this very real fear that often underlies a tenant's decision to bring an assistance animal to the property without notifying his housing provider.