Question: For several years I have been undergoing psychotherapy for a nervous illness, which has now been diagnosed as a general anxiety disorder. I live at an apartment complex that does not allow pets, but my psychiatrist has recently urged me to get a companion animal, which she thinks would give me a positive relationship that would alleviate my anxiety.
A friend helped me find a very nice cocker spaniel puppy that was up for adoption. I asked my community manager to allow me to adopt this dog and bring him to live with me. The manager refused, telling me that he was only obligated to allow a service animal such as a guide dog.
He said he did not have to accommodate a pet that merely kept me company. When I pressed my right to a companion animal, the manager offered to allow me to keep the puppy but said I would have to purchase renter's insurance and pay a $500 pet deposit along with a $75-a-month rent increase.
I am a low-income person, living on disability. I cannot afford these additional payments. What are my rights under the law?
Answer: Federal and state fair housing laws require housing providers to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies and procedures when they are necessary to afford a person with a disability equal enjoyment of his or her home. A tenant has a disability under the federal fair housing act if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or if there is a record of having such impairment or if the tenant is regarded as having such impairment.
The state of California provides an additional protection. In California the physical or mental disability need only limit a major life activity. The limitation does not need to be substantial.
A disabled tenant wanting to request a reasonable accommodation must establish a causal connection between the disability and the request. The accommodation request can be made orally or in writing, although we strongly recommend a written request. In the request, the tenant should clearly specify what the accommodation would be and, if the need for the request is not readily apparent to the landlord, why such a request is being made. The tenant does not have to go so far as to name the disability, and such a demand by a landlord would be improper. It is advisable to include a support letter from the treating physician recommending the request, which in your case could be your psychiatrist.
A companion animal that helps alleviate anxiety is recognized as a reasonable accommodation for your type of disability, entitled to the same status as a guide dog or other service animal. Assuming that the disability is not readily apparent to your landlord, he could request documentation verifying the need for the companion animal. Absent an undue financial and administrative burden, a housing provider is then expected to grant the request.
Your manager is not permitted to pass the cost of the accommodation to you and therefore cannot charge a pet deposit, increase your rent because of the pet or require insurance not required of all other tenants. Contact your local fair housing agency for more information or assistance with your request.
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.