By Andrea Cavanaugh
Katie is a disabled Santa Monica resident who lives in an apartment building that doesn’t allow pets. Her doctor told her that the effects of her disability could be improved if she got an “emotional support” dog to live with her.
Katie gave the doctor’s letter to her landlord and asked permission to get a dog. His first response was to say no, since pets weren’t allowed. When she explained that it wouldn’t be a pet but a support animal, the landlord said she could get a cat, but not a dog. Katie explained that her fiancé was allergic to cats. The landlord still wouldn’t budge.
That’s when Katie contacted the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division. The Consumer staff explained to the landlord that he was required by law to allow the dog. He first responded with a list of requirements — including that Katie had to carry her dog when she was in the common area. After some discussion, the landlord finally agreed to allow the dog without unfair restrictions.
The Fair Housing laws bar landlords from discriminating on the basis of a tenant’s disability. This means they must make “reasonable accommodations” to their rules when necessary. As you may know, this includes allowing “service animals” — those trained to perform specific tasks — even in no-pets properties. But it also includes allowing “emotional support” animals (those that provide comfort even if they don’t do a particular task).
The key word here is “reasonable.” Both the landlord and the tenant have to be fair in their position – not asking for too much or denying a reasonable solution to the problem. In the case of animals, the owner can’t place unreasonable restrictions on the tenant.
Owner Dos and Don’ts:
If the tenant’s disability isn’t obvious, the landlord can require a letter from a licensed health care provider that documents the disability and the need for an accommodation.
The landlord can require that the animal be licensed and vaccinated as required by law.
The landlord can’t ask for specifics about the nature of the disability or the tenant’s private medical information.
The landlord can’t require the tenant to pay pet rent or an additional deposit, even if the landlord allows pets and requires that of other tenants.
The landlord can’t exclude a dog based on size or breed, and must demonstrate an animal poses a specific, objective threat in order to ask that it be removed.
The landlord can’t impose unreasonable restrictions (like Katie’s landlord did)
Tenants Dos and Don’ts:
The tenant is responsible for any damage the animal causes.
The tenant is responsible for picking up after their animals and ensuring they don’t bark excessively or otherwise cause a nuisance.
Get documentation of the disability and need for accommodation from a licensed health-care provider.
Provide the medical letter to the landlord along with a cover letter asking for an accommodation.
Santa Monica residents or property owners who need help with these issues or want more information should contact the City Attorney’s Office at (310) 458-8336 or smconsumer.org. The Consumer Protection Division of the City Attorney’s Office enforces the law and educates the public about tenants’ rights, fair housing, consumer protection, and other issues.