Emotional support animal owners experience housing problems

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COLUMBIA - Several residents have faced problems trying to get their landlords to recognize their emotional support or companion animals.

Chloe Martinez had her therapist write a note so her dog, Cash, could be her emotional support animal. Martinez, 23, is a recent University of Missouri graduate who said she got the idea from a friend after she started battling mental health issues.

“It was my sophomore year of high school, and I was dealing with a lot of anxiety," Martinez said.

She said Cash helps her deal with social anxiety when she is in public and has helped her through some very hard times.

“Animals are therapeutic,” she said. “Just petting a dog lowers your blood pressure.”

But, after Martinez explained her situation to her former landlords at Broadway Townhomes, owned by Log Hill Properties, they were less than accommodating.

"My other roommates already had animals, so it was kind of like a ‘you just want to get out of paying,’" Martinez said.

KOMU 8 News contacted Log Hill Properties for comment but did not get a response. 

Martinez said, after experiencing the problems, she wrote a letter explaining the situation and referencing the Fair Housing Act.

Under the Fair Housing Act, housing providers "may not require applicants and residents to pay a deposit for an assistance animal." Housing providers are also not allowed to deny "reasonable accommodation requests" just because they don't know whether the person needs an emotional support or assistance animal. They are, however, allowed to ask for reliable documentation to verify this, if the person's disabilities are not readily apparent.

Chuck Graham, associate director of Great Plains ADA Center, said he thinks many landlords don't understand what they have to do to comply with the Fair Housing Act for people with emotional support animals, and people on both sides of the issue need to know their rights and responsibilities.

“I can understand the confusion," Graham said. "They’re dealing with a lot of things in operating a building, especially maintaining student housing in this community, and so this is probably not on the top of their to learn list until the issue presents itself.”

While the FHA does recognize companion animals, the Americans With Disabilities Act does not.

According to the ADA National Network, "Emotional support animals, comfort animals, and therapy dogs are not service animals under Title II and Title III of the ADA. Other species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not considered service animals either." The ADA only recognizes service animals, meaning a dog or miniature horse that is "individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability."

Graham said the ADA used to allow companion animals, but people started to abuse the system.

“People just make it up and say, ‘My dog or my cat or my bird or my snake is my emotional support animal, and therefore I get to keep it,'" he said.

It could be difficult for a landlord to know who actually needs a companion animal, especially considering there isn't an "official" registry. There are several websites allow people to print out certificates for emotional support animals. One, the National Service Animal Registry, will print a certificate for $64.95 plus shipping, even if animal owners don't provide documentation of their disability or need for an emotional support animal.

Graham said these websites are just scams.

“People are getting ripped off on the Internet by purchasing these things and then thinking it’s some sort of official documentation when it really is not," he said. "You may feel better that you’ve got a certificate that says it’s true, but that certificate is meaningless in court."

He said if the people claiming they need emotional support animals don't actually have disabilities, then they're just taking advantage of landlords.

"The animal really isn’t serving a purpose. They’re just kind of using an intimidation of landlords to be able to keep their pet for free,” Graham said.

Martinez said it's the people who take advantage of the system that ruin it for people who do need the animals.

“Like anything else, people are going to abuse that, and it’s the people that abuse that that make it harder on people who actually really need these animals because then, they’re questioned more often,” Martinez said.

KOMU 8 News knows of at least three other instances in which people with emotional support animals have faced problems with Columbia apartment complexes and landlords recognizing them.

Katie Koch had MU Student Health write her a note stating her dog was needed for emotional support after she began experiencing severe anxiety. She said she was very upset after her landlord from GWZ Investments LLC continuously asked her why she needed the dog.

When KOMU 8 News reached out to GWZ Investments LLC for comment, the person who answered the phone hung up.

Graham said, under the FHA, landlords can inquire whether someone has a disability that qualifies them to have a companion animal, but they cannot ask how many treatment sessions that person goes to each week or other similar questions. Those are illegal inquiries, and by asking, those housing providers could risk federal investigations from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

“They can’t keep delving into how long have you been depressed, you know, what medications are you on. They can’t go down that list of things,” Graham said.

Koch said she did not file a complaint with HUD. She said she knows many people do not understand why she needs the dog, but that the dog makes her smile, he knows when she's sad, and he helped her significantly after her dad passed away.

"He was my everything," Koch said.