Fair housing discrimination based on disabilities continues to be one of the most frequent complaints according to fair housing organizations in Pennsylvania.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development charged a western Pennsylvania rental company with violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to allow assistance animals in rental properties. HUD’s charge specifically alleges that rental agents told fair housing testers posing as prospective tenants with disabilities that they could accept service animals but were not permitted to accept “emotional support” animals. Read HUD’s charge.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits housing providers from discriminating against people with disabilities, including refusing to make reasonable accommodations in policies or practices when such accommodations may be necessary to provide persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use or enjoy a dwelling. This includes permitting persons with disabilities to have service animals or assistance animals. Housing providers may not prohibit people with disabilities from having assistance animals that perform work or tasks or that provide disability-related emotional support.
Rachel Wentworth, executive director of the Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania, said the organization sees a number of disability-based discrimination complaints based on assistance animals and reserved parking spaces.
“It continues to be one of the most common discrimination complaints we receive,” she said. “Typically, we see housing providers trying to impose extra fees for tenants who have assistance animals or who are requesting reasonable accommodations of having a reserved parking space. Under the Fair Housing Act, it’s not permissible to impose fees or conditions for these types of accommodations for tenants with a disability.”
Earlier this year, a Philadelphia apartment owner paid $42,000 for failure to make reasonable accommodations for residents with disabilities. Following a complaint, HECP conducted an investigation which found that the apartment owner refused to permit emotional support animals without extra fees and additionally found that they were unwilling to allow reserved parking spaces for residents with mobility disabilities.
Wentworth explained that often when someone files a complaint, HECP works with them to send a letter to the housing provider, explaining the law and the Fair Housing Act and their responsibilities before conducting testing or filing a complaint.
The western Pennsylvania case came to HUD’s attention when Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services, a HUD Fair Housing Initiatives Program agency, filed a complaint after testers posing as prospective tenants who said they had assistance animals were told that the animals were not allowed. According to HUD’s charge, Perry Homes rental agents told testers that only registered service animals that had been trained for a specific duty would be permitted, and that Perry Homes was not obligated to accept “emotional support” animals.
Adrian Garcia, director of Fair Housing and Commercial Property Division at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said many housing providers are confused about the American With Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.
“HUD issued some additional guidelines in January 2020 giving some more guidance about what an emotional support animal is and what kinds of questions a landlord can ask a tenant,” Garcia said. “The more you know and understand, the better you are as a housing provider. You understand what questions you can ask legally so you’re able to set up a uniform way of how to handle these requests, whether you have a form for a tenant to take to their medical professional to complete or you allow the tenant to bring a letter from their medical provider.”
“It’s important for housing providers to understand that providing reasonable accommodations is an instrument of equality,” he added. “It meets people where they are and provides accommodations so they can enjoy their homes.”
PAR General Counsel Hank Lerner said service/support animals continue to be a frequent topic of calls on PAR’s Legal Hotline.
“We remind Realtors® that not allowing a tenant to have a service or support animal or charging additional fees are fair housing violations,” Lerner said. “PAR’s Legal Hotline attorneys have written articles about this topic and discussed this in a fair housing webinar to help Realtors® recognize the importance of the Fair Housing Act, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, as well as NAR’s Code of Ethics.”
“HUD will vigorously enforce the rights of persons with disabilities to receive the reasonable accommodations they need to enjoy their homes,” said Damon Y. Smith, HUD’s principal deputy general counsel. “HUD is committed to ensuring that housing providers do not discriminate against persons with disabilities who need assistance animals.”
People who believe they have experienced discrimination may file a complaint by contacting HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at 800-669-9777 (voice) or 800-877-8339 (Relay). Housing discrimination complaints may also be filed by going to hud.gov/fairhousing.