We’re all familiar with the “no pets” rule in apartments. Property owners like the rule since it can help keep the units in good condition. Many tenants also like it since it helps cut down on noise and other problems. But there are times when the no-pets rule has to be bent – by law.

Sarah was a Santa Monica tenant whose anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder were debilitating, until her therapist finally suggested she get a dog for emotional support. The only problem was, her apartment complex had a no-pet rule. So Sarah approached her landlord about getting an exception from the rule to allow her a dog.

“What will this animal be trained to do for you?” asked the landlord.

“It’s not trained for anything in particular,” replied Sarah. “Just to be my companion and for general support.”

“Sorry, but we have a no-pets rule,” her landlord said. “The only exception is for ADA-approved service animals with training and certificates. You know, like a guide dog for the blind.”

Sarah filed a complaint with us – the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division. We help to enforce the fair housing laws in Santa Monica.

The fair housing laws require landlords to provide both reasonable “accommodations” and “modifications” for tenants with disabilities. Accommodations are exceptions to the normal rules to allow disabled tenants equal opportunity to use and enjoy their homes. These include things like proximate parking, extra time to comply with notices – and service animals.

Typically the tenant has a letter from a doctor confirming the disability and the need for an exception to the rules. The accommodation has to be reasonable: it can’t create an undue burden for the owner.

Landlords must also allow reasonable “modifications” to disabled tenants – physical changes to the apartment, such as wheelchair ramps and grab bars. The tenant has to pay for these modifications.

In Sarah’s case, we explained to the owner and his attorney that disabled tenants can have emotional support animals. Unlike the federal ADA law, the fair housing laws don’t require service animals to be trained or certified. So Sarah was allowed to get her support dog, which has been a huge help for her.

Tenants with disabilities – and their landlords – can and do call us every week with questions about their rights and responsibilities. We also help with the creative brainstorming that is often needed to assure that disabled tenants have equal access and enjoyment of their home, parking, and other amenities. Give us a call at (310) 458-8327, or visit smconsumer.org.

Santa Monica has another great resource for tenants who need help with modifications. The Westside Center for Independent Living (WCIL) has city-funded grants along with expert staff and vendors to help make modifications happen. When the City Attorney’s office or WCIL get involved, the emphasis is always on what’s needed and then what’s reasonable and then how to work it out.

If you would like to read more about reasonable accommodations and modifications, please check out our website, reasonableaccommodations.org.

– By Gary W. Rhoades & Adam Radinsky

Gary W. Rhoades is the Deputy City Attorney and Adam Radinsky is Chief of the Consumer Protection Division in the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office.

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. They can be reached at 310-458-8336 or smconsumer.org.