Choosing Your Battles on the ESA Front

By Judy Bellack, Industry Principal, The Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative


“Never fight a battle you cannot win.” – George R.R. Martin

There’s probably not a single rental housing operator who hasn’t felt like they’re constantly in the midst of one battle or another in the day-to-day operation of an apartment community. And lately, one of those recurring struggles is the onslaught of emotional support animal (ESA) accommodation requests from residents. 

While concerns regarding the regulation and management of these requests may seem daunting, a shift in perspective can go a long way in mitigating not only the requests but the time and energy devoted by site staff to managing these requests – not to mention the unhappy task of communicating with those who have submitted a request that is not supported by the proper validation. Not exactly a win-win.

Let’s shed some light on why operators should reconsider fighting the losing battle against the influx of ESA requests and, instead, choose to adopt an inclusive stance by allowing all non-aggressive dogs. This begins with fully understanding why ESA requests are on the rise:

  • Many ESA accommodation requests are legitimate.

It’s important to acknowledge that many ESA requests are completely legitimate. Additionally, during the pandemic many individuals saw an opportunity to bring a pet into the home; often, these pets provided enormous relief from the increased anxiety and stress experienced both during the pandemic and beyond. 

  • Restrictive pet policies are driving the “non-legitimate” requests.

If your policies prohibit a dog over 35 pounds, for example, or breeds such as Dobermans, Rottweilers, German Shepherds and Pit Bulls, then you instantly have a huge number of potential residents who are going to get creative in order to keep their pet. Some will choose simply not to tell you they have a pet. And others will obtain ESA documentation.

  • The abundance of pet fees is also driving many of these requests.

Refundable pet deposits, non-refundable pet fees, and pet rent all charged “per pet” are not palatable for many residents. Most of these fees didn’t even exist several years ago. And for some, the cumulative total is burdensome. Again, residents will get creative to avoid these fees and keep their pet and live in the apartment of their choice. But this is a subject for another day.

So, why should operators reconsider restrictive pet policies? 

The short answer is to reduce the time and process around trying to fight a losing battle. However, there are so many more reasons to consider this than the burdensome process of handling ESA requests alone: 

  1. The operational benefit of freeing staff to focus on other tasks
  2. The marketing benefit of expanding your prospect pool 
  3. The retention benefit of a resident segment that befriends each other and stays longer
  4. The NOI benefit of reduced turnover and vacancy loss

The numbers are certainly compelling. In one survey of 3000 pet-owning residents conducted by, 18% of renters say they’ve kept the existence of their pet quiet – that’s roughly 7.7 million unauthorized pets across the country. It’s tough to hold residents accountable to community pet rules when you don’t know about the pet. However, given the choice, this same survey found that 82% of pet owners would be willing to pay an additional fee in order to keep their pet on the property with them. When it comes to what people would be willing to pay on top of their rent, the average amount is $375.69. By the way, that more than covers the average amount of pet damages according to the Pet-Inclusive Housing Report, which cites only 9% of pet-owning units reporting damages at an average of only $210.

Chris Heller of makes a great point: “Caring for a pet is a responsibility that requires commitment and dedication, yet the current rental market often makes it challenging for pet owners to find suitable and affordable accommodations. Discriminatory pet policies and limited pet-friendly options not only place an undue burden on renters but also deny them the joy and companionship that pets bring to their lives.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Also, in our Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative (PIHI) work with operators across the country, those who are choosing to eliminate size and breed restrictions are doing so due largely to ESA activity. Having observed that many of the ‘invalid’ ESA requests they were seeing were associated with ‘restricted breeds,’ several  companies that have pivoted to allow any breed are now seeing a decline in ESA accommodation requests. 

This is a common story among operators who are lifting their restrictions. The happy coincidence is that there are so many additional benefits of doing so, including more connected communities (dog owners congregate!) and longer-tenured residents (21% longer according to the PIHI report!). You can read validating case studies from The Management Group, Oculus Realty, PGM and several more here.

Early in our business careers or even from our parents, we all learned the adage to ‘choose your battles.’ Continuing to fight on the ESA front – due to restrictive pet policies – seems to be a battle the industry should choose not to fight. You can count on the fact that pet-owners will not back down on the battle to keep their pets and, in the absence of reasonable options,  will continue to find ways to circumvent policies. Games of Thrones author George R.R. Martin was right on the money when he said “never fight a battle you cannot win.” In this case, the resident is far more motivated to win the battle of keeping their pet.

For more information on why and how to eliminate pet restrictions responsibly, please visit the Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative website.