Question: I am a manager for a company that provides property management for several rental communities. We have a limited pet policy in all our properties. Residents can have pets only if we approve the specific animal. We have this policy so that animals unsuited for an apartment community, because they are too large or too noisy, can be excluded. A resident in one of our properties gave us a note from his doctor stating that he needed a service animal to help with his disability. We agreed that he was entitled to a companion animal, but now he has a very large, very aggressive German shepherd living in his unit. I am afraid of this dog and I am worried that some other residents will be frightened, or even attacked, by it. Do we have any right to require the resident to remove it?
Answer: The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits housing providers from discriminating against applicants or tenants because of their disability and requires that they make reasonable accommodations to afford such persons equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. This includes adjusting rules or policies, such as exemption from a weight restriction for pets, for a person that requires the assistance of an animal for a disability-related need.
Tenants are still responsible for the actions and behavior of their companion animals, regardless of their designation as such under the law. Reasonable accommodation requests differ for each individual and must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Fair housing law does not protect persons whose tenancy creates a nuisance or "direct threat" to the health or safety of other individuals. Your concern about whether this animal may cause a nuisance should not be based on fear or speculation but on an evaluation of trustworthy, objective data.
A large dog that looks menacing because of its size and reputation may not be a good reason to require the resident to remove his dog. But a long or recent history of aggression toward other tenants may justify its removal, unless actions are taken to eliminate the threat (such as muzzling the animal when outside the owner's apartment). Any other issues relating to the animal, such as noise, should be handled in the same manner that you would with non-disabled tenants.
If problems do arise, you are required to engage in an interactive process with this tenant to explore a reasonable solution to the harmful effect of this animal.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a mediation service based in Sunnyvale, Calif. To submit a question, go to http://www.housing.org.