HOA Pet Policies and Service Animals

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When to allow service and comfort animals despite a strict pet policy.

If your HOA restricts or limits pets, you may run into the issue of service or comfort animals with homeowners and tenants. Do you need to allow these animals in your community? The answer: it depends.

State and federal fair housing laws

The federal Fair Housing Act applies to HOAs and requires them to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled owners or tenants so these individuals have an equal opportunity to enjoy and use their home. Generally, this means that residents of your HOA must be allowed to keep their service animals regardless of whether or not your community has a “no pets” policy. This is true whether a resident has a physical disability, such as being blind or confined to a wheelchair, or a mental disability, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.

Service animals versus comfort animals

Service animals—dogs that are trained to help physically disabled individuals—have long been recognized as assistive aids to help overcome or deal with the impairment. More recently, dogs that help patients deal with mental and emotional disorders—known as comfort or companion animals—have also been covered by the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. Both of these types of animals are considered working animals, not pets.   

HOA rights related to service and comfort animals

While certain disabilities are readily apparent and the need for a service animal is obvious, others are not. If an owner or tenant states their animal is a service or comfort animal, you have certain rights as an HOA.

  1. Require proof from a licensed medical doctor of the resident’s disability if it is not apparent, and of the need for a service or comfort animal.
  2. If your state allows it, ask for information on how the animal has been trained to assist with the disability.
  3. If the service or comfort animal exceed the weight limit of your pet policy, ask for a letter from the medical doctor confirming that this specific dog or type of dog is required. While the animal may be required, it is considered a working animal and not a pet; therefore, that specific animal may not be needed to assist the disabled individual.
  4. It is reasonable to require the resident to be in control of and in the company of the service animal whenever in common areas.
  5. It is also reasonable to require the owner to control the animal in accordance with noise and nuisance rules, and to take responsibility for any damage caused by the animal to common areas.

If the owner does not provide proof of their disability or their need for the service or comfort animal, it is within the HOA’s rights to refuse to allow the animal. Before taking this step, however, talk with an attorney.

And, if your HOA does accept the service or comfort animal, be sure to document the accommodation with a board resolution. This provides protection against possible future claims by residents who wish to have pets against the community’s rules.

This article contains general information. Individual situations are unique; please, consult your attorney before utilizing any of the information contained in this article.

Source: Bazelon.org, HOALeader.com, Florida Condo and HOA Law Blog, HOA Law Blog
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