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Manager suspects tenant's 'companion animal' is just a pet

A tenant injured in an accident wants an exception to a 'no pets' policy, saying his dog is a medically prescribed companion animal. But he got the dog before the accident. What should the manager do?

March 22, 2013|By Martin Eichner

Question: The apartment community I manage has instituted a "no pets" policy by giving all the tenants a 30-day written notice of change of terms.

One of my tenants has kept a black Labrador retriever in his unit for three years. He asked me if he can be allowed to keep his dog despite our new policy.

This tenant was in a bad car accident about a year ago. He is unable to work right now because of the accident and mentioned that he still has to get physical therapy for some of the injuries he suffered.

He tells me that the dog is a medically prescribed companion animal, but I know that he adopted the dog from the local animal shelter years before the accident and that it is just a pet. Do I have to let him keep the dog?

Answer: The first question we would ask is whether all of your tenants are living in your community pursuant to a month-to-month tenancy. If so, the 30-day notice was the correct approach to change the policy.

But if any of the tenants have leases, you cannot change their terms until the lease expires.

As for this specific dog: It is possible that because of a change in circumstances, the dog has become a medically prescribed companion animal even if it initially was a pet. The tenant's injuries from the car accident may have rendered him eligible for such a companion animal, in which case you would need to provide the "reasonable accommodation" of keeping the dog as an exception to the "no pets" policy.

For the tenant to be entitled to this accommodation, he must be disabled as defined by the fair housing laws and be able to show that the dog is therapeutically beneficial in treating his disability. A companion animal may be a vital part of someone's treatment plan for depression or anxiety, both conditions that easily could result from a traumatic car accident.

Of course, as a landlord, you are entitled to request some information about your tenant's need for the dog as an accommodation, including verification that he is in fact disabled and that the dog is indeed a medically prescribed companion animal. This verification should come from a medical professional or other reliable third party who is in a position to know about the disability.

Even if the dog initially came into the home as a pet, it can subsequently qualify as a companion animal under the fair housing laws once the procedures for requesting this reasonable accommodation have been completed, and provided that the dog now functions as a companion animal under the criteria explained above.

Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. Send questions to info@housing.org.

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