Some residents do it to escape financial obligations. Others do it for a more noble pursuit—they simply want to live with their pets.
Whichever the case, the volume of fraudulent or otherwise insufficient accommodation requests for assistance animals continues to rise, and it can cause a significant disruption to multifamily operators. Approximately 60% of the reasonable accommodation requests reviewed and evaluated by PetScreening do not meet the guidelines set forth by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or the Fair Housing Act.
When a pet is illegitimately admitted into an apartment community under the guise of being an assistance animal—such as an emotional support animal—it can create a multitude of issues for the property. Most notably, it creates a liability risk if that animal causes damage or injury, particularly if it is later determined that property teams failed to properly review and verify the accommodation request to ensure the request met the HUD guidelines.
While property teams might think accepting every assistance animal accommodation request at face value without a thorough review under HUD’s guidelines may avoid a discrimination complaint, the property team remains legally responsible in the event an incident occurs that is related to or caused by the “assistance animal” that could and should have been prevented at the time of the accommodation request by proper review and verification.
Additionally, it can result in revenue loss if that assistance animal lives at the community at no cost (communities cannot charge for assistance animals), when it should have fallen under the parameters of a household pet where regular pet fees and pet rent may apply.
To be fair, this can be a challenging process for on-site teams. Websites exist that are solely dedicated to producing assistance animal documentation, materials, and products, and it can be difficult for leasing agents—most of whom admittedly aren’t experts on the topic—to distinguish which ones are legitimate. It can be a time-consuming process that distracts teams from engaging in other highly important tasks.
With that in mind, here are two high-level recommendations to make the verification process less cumbersome for property teams.
Outsource Assistance Animal Accommodation Requests
For the reasons mentioned above, attempting to verify these sometimes esoteric requests can be strenuous for on-site teams. The same is true for teams that try to manually verify employment, income, and bank account information for prospective residents, but thankfully a multitude of tools and third-party services can provide near-instant answers.
Operators should consider taking the same approach with reasonable accommodation animal requests—outsourcing them to an assistance animal review tool and team that is adept at recognizing the various nuances and that can provide rapid answers. Much like automated screening and verification tools, this also reduces the burden from on-site teams if they must ever decline a request, because the determination is made by a third party.
Eliminate Breed and Weight Restrictions
This topic was discussed in depth in last month’s column, but we’ll focus on a particular element of the concept here. By eliminating breed and weight restrictions in favor of evaluating pets on an individual basis, properties can make sure they’re receiving their rightful revenue.
That’s because many times residents create fraudulent assistance animal accommodation requests only because their pet is not permitted because of a community’s restricted breed or weight list. They deploy this tactic only because they want to continue to live with their pet. Most often with these residents, they’d be happy to pay regular pet fees and rent if the pet was permitted on the property. By not denying these pets simply due to preexisting characteristics, properties can reopen the revenue stream.
Of note, teams should maintain the right to deny the pet based on its history or that of the pet owner. But evaluating each individually is a more modern approach that is both pet-friendly and pet-responsible.
Fraudulent and insufficient requests for reasonable assistance animal accommodations are not a seasonal trend or fleeting topic in the rental housing industry. Sadly, bad actors will continue to try and pass their pets off as “assistance animals” because they know many property teams are scared or unsure of how to handle the situation. This is a genuine issue that will continue to affect on-site teams that try to handle them on their own. It can increase liability and decrease revenue.
Thankfully, the industry can take steps to help identify these bad actors and keep their communities running smoothly.
This is the third installment of a monthly series by John Bradford. Read the first article on the state of pets in multifamily in 2023 and the second article rethinking pet breed and weight restrictions.