“Companion Animal/Pet” seems to be the new buzz word in the multi housing industry. Tenants are working the system to be able to have pets without paying the extra fees, and there seems little the managers can do about it. However, many people, managers and tenants alike, don’t fully understand what a companion animal/pet is, or what it means for the complex or rental unit.

First you need to understand that a Companion Animal is not a Service Animal. While a Service Animal has special training and performs a set task, a Companion Animal is strictly emotional support and comfort. Companion Animals are typically for individuals with mental disabilities, such as depression, anxiety, those in need of emotional support etc (this now also includes veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder). The US Housing and Urban Development update on February 17 2011 states specifically, “However, species other than dogs, with or without training, and animals that provide emotional support have been recognized as necessary assistance animals under the reasonable accommodation provisions of the FHAct and Section 504.” So that a Companion Animal is protected under Fair Housing and reasonable accommodation.

Here’s the catch, there are certain things that you CANNOT do when dealing with Companion Animals.
-You can’t charge a pet deposit/rent/fee – just like a service animal.
-You can’t demand that it perform a task or prove service ability – it is not a service animal and falls under a different definition
-You can’t turn them away because of the pet

Currently you have to allow them into your property no mater what your pet policy may be. Under the US Department of Housing and Urban Development you have to allow reasonable accommodation. Unless the potential tenant does not meet your application criteria (credit score too low or references don’t check out, etc) you have to rent to them.

However, as a manager/owner you are not completely helpless. There are a few things you CAN do to protect yourself and your property.

-You can require a verification form from the tenants physician/psychiatrists/psychologist. Include in your application a Companion Animal Letter that requires a signature from the treating physician. (Example Letter).
-You can call the physician/psychiatrist/psychologist to verify personally that they do need a companion animal.
-You can charge the tenant for damage done to the property. Just like any other tenant they will pay a deposit (not a pet deposit just the normal rental deposit) which you are allowed to use if the animal has damaged the property in any way.

Though it does not seem like much by verifying through the letter and physician you can gain better control of the Companion Animal issue. Many tenants cry Companion Animal only to get their pets in free, but having to find a physician to sign a letter will deter that type of fraud. Also know that the HUD FHAct and Section 504 protect you against animals that are not house broken, are dangerous, or are not well cared for or controlled by the tenant. While those with disabilities are permitted to live comfortably, so are all the other tenants.

If you are ever faced with the issue of Companion Animals and need advice, consult your local Apartment Association or the National Apartment Association. They are dealing with the issue as well, through study groups and legislation, attempting to help you out, and protect your interests.

Tell us about your Companion Pets, have you encountered any issues? What have you done that could help others in similar situations? Comment below.

Also check out our other Tips for Managers for other great advice.