Pet owners opting for emotional support animal status to avoid onerous fees while renting, raises questions about industry policies and ESA fraud.
By Judy Bellack, Industry Principal, The Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative
The Rise of ESA Accommodation Requests
It’s no secret that Emotional Support Animal (ESA) accommodation requests are on the rise in the multifamily housing industry. Due to a lack of clarity in the laws, bad actors may easily take advantage of loopholes. Not surprisingly, an entire online cottage industry 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 and Depression
- Learning disabilities
- Attention deficit disorder
- Chronic stress
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Other invisible neurodivergence-based disabilities like Autism.
These are very real conditions that should never be minimized in any way.
Do Pet Restriction Policies Play a Role in ESA Fraud?
The typical apartment community in the U.S. accepts pets – but not without significant restrictions. In fact, the Pet-Inclusive Housing Report 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)
*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 a pet as an emotional support animal. Rather than face surrendering or rehoming their 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 fair, however, to ask if ESA fraud is yet another indicator that the industry’s pet policies are no longer relevant for today’s renter.
With 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. Perhaps it’s time to take an even harder look at the “why?” behind rising ESA accommodation fraud.
Here is some recommended reading to help you move in that direction: