HUD Issues New Guidance for Emotional Support Animal Letters

HUD Issues New Guidance for Emotional Support Animal Letters

Wally the alligator may lift sagging spirits. But new federal rules are going to make it harder to argue that the reptile — or any emotional support animal — deserves to be allowed in rental housing without pet fees.

The story about the reptile’s ability to improve a Pennsylvania man’s depression may have gone viral, just like the one about the Brooklyn peacock denied a seat on a plane. But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is cracking down. New mandates are trying to stem what some see as an “anything goes” environment that’s given rise to a cottage industry of bogus products.

New rules to protect both landlord and tenant.

The new rules are an update to the Fair Housing Act (FHA) that sought to equalize the ability of people with disabilities to enjoy housing. Under the law, housing providers had to exempt those with disabilities from “no pet” rules and pet fees. But some of the gaps in the rules have been abused by those simply trying to bypass pet rules and fees. Others who are providing the letters have exploited uneducated consumers.

Some in the industry are applauding the new restrictions.

“Twenty-two dollar documents, deceitful business practices, unlicensed and unethical therapists, pets becoming service animals by clicking ‘submit’ — I see it every day,” said Chaz Stevens, CEO and founder of ESADoggy International, which offers emotional support animal letters worldwide. He’s concerned the fake operators will undermine the legitimacy of a vital service, a lifeline, really, for the truly disabled who legitimately need accommodations.

“It’s about time Uncle Sam sent in the cavalry,” he added.

Floodgates of complaints, fraud and abuse.

Loosely worded rules have been instrumental in opening floodgates of complaints, fraud and abuse. Consider:

  • Sixty percent of all complaints about fair housing involve emotional support animals.
  • Letters declaring goats, kangaroos, dogs and cats to be emotional support animals are a cottage industry, available online for as little as $18.
  • Providers of letters have been the target of media investigations showing how getting an animal support “letter” is as easy as filling out an online form without any verification of asserted facts.

The new guidelines in FHEO-2020-01 will tighten restrictions on who can claim that an animal makes it possible to perform the activities of daily level in spite of a disability and who can document it It’s another attempt at defining what is a “reasonable accommodation” for a disability.

Redefining reasonable accommodations.

The new rules will

  • Largely limit emotional support animal species to common household pets, such as dogs, cats, gerbils, hamsters, small bird, fish or some other animal that is kept in the home without interfering with the operation of a condominium or other housing community.
  • Spell out how those assistance animals outside the “common household pets” category address a need that could not be met by a common household pet. A monkey, for example, would qualify if it has been trained to get a bottle of water from the refrigerator, loosen the cap, insert a straw, and put the bottle in a holder so the individual can drink water. Those are tasks that a dog, cat, or gerbil could not perform.
  • Add new scrutiny to the level of care the professional writing the letter is providing to the letter-holder with a disability that can’t be seen. The new rules say that a medical provider issuing the letter must have “personal client knowledge” of the patient’s disability. The law, however, does not specify what that knowledge entails in terms of therapeutic hours, for example.

Stevens, of ESADoggy, is not sure the bulk of his industry is complying just yet. He said he found one operator with 65,000 clients whose owners thought the new mandates didn’t apply.

“We encourage our readers to proceed cautiously when shopping online for an ESA letter,” Stevens said. “The U.S. government cracked down and it appears few have risen to the challenge.

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HUD's 2020 guidance requires clinicians have active therapeutic care and personal knowledge when providing clients with reliable written verification of their disability-related benefit for an emotional support animal.