Why Apartments Ban Pets, Allow Service Animals

Landlords used to ban dogs, cats and other pets from apartment buildings due to the damage, odor, noise, liability risk and other concerns.

But these days, some apartment buildings seem to house more pets than people.

Three trends largely explain why:

  • Some pets are there with permission.
  • Some "pets" are service or assistance animals for people with disabilities, and landlords are required to accommodate the animals.
  • Some pets are disguised as service animals, even though they're not.

Pets with permission

A 2013 Apartments.com survey suggests the population of apartment-dwelling pets has indeed increased. Of the renters surveyed, 75% said they had a pet, compared with only 43% in 2012.

Some apartment buildings allow pets if the tenant complies with the rules. Typically that involves signing an addendum to the lease or rental agreement, paying an extra deposit for any damage the pet might cause and paying extra "pet rent" for the animal occupant. If pets are allowed, the rules might also limit the number, size, type or breed of pets that are permitted.

A study by Firepaw, an animal welfare research foundation, concluded that apartment pet-friendly policies gave owners multiple benefits, including more loyal tenants and a bottom-line boost of $2,731, on average, per unit each year.

Support animals for disabled tenants

Some people are allowed to have a pet in an apartment building that isn't pet-friendly or has a formal no-pets policy. That's because at least two federal laws and some state and local laws require landlords to bend their rules and make certain accommodations for tenants who have disabilities.

Trained service animals (mostly dogs)

One such law is the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires public businesses and other entities to make reasonable accommodations for service animals. This law narrowly defines "service animals" as dogs (and sometimes miniature horses) that have been trained to perform specific tasks that aid an individual who has a disability.

Assistance animals

The federal Fair Housing Act requires reasonable accommodations in housing for certain assistance animals, including so-called emotional support or therapy animals. This law, enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is written more broadly than the ADA.

In a December 2013 statement, Bryan Greene, HUD acting assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, said "assistance animals help many people with disabilities perform everyday activities that others may take for granted."

Privacy protections for disabled tenants

Whether the landlord can ask about the nature of the individual's disability depends upon whether the disability is evident, explains Jeanne Delgado, vice president of business operations and risk management policy for the National Multifamily Housing Council, a trade group that represents apartment owners.

"If someone has a disability that is obvious -- they are blind or in a wheelchair and they have a guide dog or a trained assistance animal that performs tasks, (the landlord) can't ask about the disability. If it's not apparent, (the landlord) can ask for medical evidence of the disability and why you need the dog or the animal," Delgado says.

Exceptions and overlapping standards

The FHA also contains an exception that says no accommodation is required if an animal poses a threat to people or property.

If that all sounds confusing, well, it is.

As Phyllis W. Cheng, director of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, recently testified at a government hearing, the ADA, FHA and other federal, state and local laws "require different standards for service animals to accommodate persons with disabilities" and "are often vague, unclear or conflicting.

"This situation is challenging for persons with disabilities and for businesses, housing providers and employers who must provide reasonable accommodations," Cheng says.

Some tenants feel envious of disabled neighbors

Animal lovers who live in a no-pets apartment might feel miffed if a neighbor who has a disability is permitted to have a service or assistance animal. But a landlord's legally mandated accommodation for one person doesn't constitute blanket permission for everyone in the building.

"It's very clear," Delgado says, "that if (a building) has a no-pets policy, you can't have a pet. Just because someone else has (a support animal) under reasonable accommodation of the Fair Housing Act doesn't mean the person next door can also have a pet."

If you do sneak a pet into a no-pets building, you could be in violation of your lease or rental agreement and could be evicted as a result.

A dog in service animal's clothing

Some pet owners purchase vests, patches, meaningless registration certificates or other paraphernalia to try to help their pet masquerade as a legitimate service or assistance animal.

Such suspicious-seeming pets have become so commonplace in California that the state government recently held a hearing to ascertain whether "fake" service dogs pose a real problem.

Apart from the legal issues, sneaking an animal into an apartment under the guise of a disability is "just wrong," Delgado says.

"These rules are in place to protect people who need this protection and assistance. If people who don't need this type of assistance take advantage of the law for their own personal gain, it ultimately hurts people who really need it," she says." "It makes it more difficult for those who are truly handicapped and in need of such animals."

Copyright 2014, Bankrate Inc.