Emotional Support Animals and Renters – Are Your Pet Policies Actually Contributing to Fraudulent Requests?

Emotional Support Animals and Renters – Are Your Pet Policies Actually Contributing to Fraudulent Requests?

Written by Judy Bellack, Industry Principal, Pet-Inclusive Housing, Michelson Found Animals

October, 24, 2022

It’s no secret that Emotional Support Animal (ESA) accommodation requests are on the rise in the multifamily housing industry. And due to a lack of clarity in the laws, there are loopholes for bad actors to take advantage of the system; not to mention an entire online cottage industry that has sprung up to provide individuals with the required legal verification without much actual verification of the disability necessitating an ESA.

Let’s be clear . . . housing operators are required to accommodate legitimate ESA requests at your properties regardless of restrictions and without pet fees; refusal to do so will put your company at risk of fair housing violations and the commensurate fines or lawsuits that come with those violations. Fortunately, there are also pet screening services that can provide the necessary verification and eliminate most fraudulent activity. 

Let’s also be clear that there are many legitimate ESA accommodation requests; some of the common mental disabilities that qualify an individual for an ESA are anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, chronic stress, post-traumatic stress disorder as well as other invisible neurodivergence-based disabilities like Autism. These are very real conditions that should never be minimized in any way. 

But have we asked ourselves what role our policies may be playing in creating ESA fraud?

The typical apartment community in the U.S. accepts pets – but not without significant restrictions (in fact, the Pet-Inclusive Housing Report (PIHI) tells us that only 8% of rentals have no restrictions when it comes to pets). The most common restrictions include:

  • A weight limit between 25-40 pounds (bye-bye Labrador Retriever, the most popular breed in the U.S. according to the American Kennel Club)
    • A limit of 1 pet per unit (I have to choose between my cat and my dog?)
  • Breed restrictions, usually 10-15 various larger breeds (misconceptions about breed-based behaviors persist even though there is no supporting data)

And while pet fees aren’t restrictions per se, the accumulation of fees can become economically restrictive:

  • Average refundable pet deposit $200-$500 (per pet)
  • Average pet rent $30-$50 per month (per pet)
  • Average one-time non-refundable pet fee $250 (per pet)

Note: with average pet damages of $210 reported on fewer than 9% of pets, this seems like overkill if the true goal is to mitigate damage (PIHI report)

Given that over 70% of households in the U.S. have a pet, and that over 44 million people (34% of U.S. households) live in rental housing, it’s no wonder that pet-owners may opt to claim their pet is an emotional support animal. Rather than face surrendering or rehoming their larger or breed-restricted pet, or being faced with ruling out otherwise great housing options due to onerous pet fees, renters will get “creative” to find ways to keep their families together.

It’s not OK to lie, of course. It’s also not OK to make things more difficult for those who legitimately need an emotional assistance animal by creating an atmosphere of distrust. It is a fair question, however, to ask if ESA fraud is yet another indicator that the industry’s pet policies are no longer relevant for today’s renter. Knowing that there are so many misconceptions about restricted dog breeds and larger dogs, perhaps it’s time for the industry to take a hard look at restrictive pet policies and duplicative fees, and an even harder look at the “why?” behind the fact that ESA fraud has become such a huge issue.

Here is some recommended reading to help you move in that direction:

Study Finds Breed Not A Good Predictor of Individual Dog Behavior

Affordability and Pets – Rising Costs Are Forcing Tough Decisions For Renters

PIHI Case Study #1- The Management Group