Emotional Support Animals: Questions for Landlords

Question:  I just approved an applicant for a no-pets property who then presented a letter designating their dog as an ESA. The letter is obviously from an online letter mill. The whole situation smells like yesterday’s fish. How should I handle these ESA letters that suddenly seem so ubiquitous?

Answer:  Simply put, you should handle every ESA letter as a credible request for an accommodation. Pittsburgh attorney Joseph A. Carroll published an article in the Jan 2020 issue of the NARPM magazine “Residential Resource” on this topic. In it he explains that in most circumstances online ESA letters meet the FHA’s requirements to require reasonable accommodations so long as they are signed by a state-licensed mental health professional and that the letter states that the ESA alleviates one or more symptoms of the tenant’s FHA-qualifying disability. 

Here is an excerpt from Carroll’s article we find helpful: 

“Landlords must evaluate requests to possess an ESA using the general principles applicable to all “reasonable accommodation” requests under the FHA. Specifically, the landlord should consider (1) whether the person seeking to use and live with the ESA has a disability as defined by the FHA, i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity, and (2) whether the person making the request has a disability-related need for an ESA, i.e., whether the animal provides emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability. If the answer to either of these inquiries is “no,” then landlords are not required to make a modification to their “no pet” policy, and the reasonable accommodation request may be denied. If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then landlords must permit the tenant to live with and use the ESA in all areas of the premises where people are normally allowed to go, unless (1) doing so would impose an undue financial and administrative burden, (2) would fundamentally alter the nature of the landlord’s services, (3) the specific ESA in question poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation, or (4) the specific ESA in question would cause substantial physical damage to the property of others that cannot be reduced or eliminated by another reasonable accommodation.” Joseph A. Carroll. “Online ESA Letters.” Residential Resources, Jan. 2020, 14-15.