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Bills would let landlords crack down on support animals

Dog - Getty Images/iStockphoto
November 24, 2019

Bills would let landlords crack down on support animals

  • House, Senate legislation would let landlords evict tenants who lie about needing emotional support animal
  • Housing advocates fear moves may violate federal Fair Housing Act
  • Websites selling permit letters are real problem, advocates say

Lansing lawmakers are considering legislation that proponents say would help harness tenants looking to exploit loose rules on emotional support animals in apartment buildings.

A pair of House bills, 4910 and 4911, would let landlords evict tenants who lie about needing an emotional support animal to help with a disability, as well as make it a misdemeanor for a health care provider to prescribe one when not needed and for a tenant to falsely claim that they are needed. There is also similar legislation in the state Senate.

Under the legislation, landlords could ask for "reliable documentation from an individual's health care provider" proving that he or she has a disability and needs an emotional support animal, which the legislation defines as "a common domestic animal" prescribed to a person with a "mental, emotional, psychological or psychiatric condition or illness."

Yet some housing advocates contend that the proposals don't address one of the key causes of the problem, which are websites that, with little to no supporting evidence or psychological assessment, provide letters prescribing the use of the animals.

Karlene Lehman, vice president with Bloomfield Township-based multifamily landlord Princeton Enterprises LLC, said her company, which has 25,000 units in 15 states and 100 properties in Michigan, said the number of people saying they need emotional support animals at their complexes has doubled. From May 1 to Oct. 31 last year, there were 92; during that same period this year, there were 183, she said.

"Princeton received 261 modification and accommodation requests (under the Fair Housing Act) in the last six months. That should be spread out over all these different" types of changes to housing that can be requested under the Fair Housing Act, she said. "Seventy percent were for an emotional support animal. It is overwhelming. I received three requests just today."

Emotional support animals and service animals are different because the latter are trained to do specific things.

I. Matthew Miller, a member of the property management section for Farmington Hills-based law firm Swistak Levine PC who is also chairman of the legislative committee of the Property Management Association of Michigan, said the websites are a problem but not easily regulated in Michigan because they generally aren't incorporated in the state.

"For anywhere between $30 and $199, they promise to write you a letter that will allow you to keep your animal, notwithstanding whether it's a pet-free community, whether it's a permitted breed," he said.

Lehman said if an apartment community denies an emotional support animal to a tenant, even if they think it's not needed, they run the risk of facing litigation and complaints to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the U.S. Housing and Development Department.

"We are forced to accept these paid letters because, if we don't, they are sending us threats stating that if you don't accept this, we will file a complaint," she said.

Jim Schaafsma, a housing attorney with the Michigan Poverty Law Program in Ypsilanti, said the legislation, however, does practically nothing to address the problem and may violate the federal Fair Housing Act.

"These bills don't very accurately target the stated concern, or they are not narrowly tailored to meeting the objective of regulating these online bad actors," he said. "They go beyond what is necessary. Our fear is especially when you're considering populations that have a legitimate right to ESAs, people with disabilities, people dealing with mental health challenges, this is going to create fear and confusion for them."

He pointed to a North Dakota law that says landlords may request "reliable supporting documentation" from a tenant seeking permission to have an emotional assistance animal, and that documentation has to come from "a physician or medical professional who does not operate in this state solely to provide certification for service or assistance animals."

"I don't think we would be opposed to that," he said.

Schaafsma also was skeptical about the claim that there would be rampant litigation if landlords challenged tenants on the legitimacy of the emotional support animal.

"They can deny it," he said. "There is some risk. They face the risk of a Fair Housing Act administrative complaint, or a court complaint, but the likelihood of someone who has made a false request for an emotional support animal suing a housing provider" is slim.

Data on the number of emotional support animals isn't easy to come by, but the National Service Animal Registry, which sells emotional support animal certificates, says that as of Nov. 7, there were more than 200,000 registered with it alone. The state civil rights department does not keep track specifically of complaints involving emotional service animals, a spokeswoman said.

Chris Davis, supervising attorney for the Information and Referral Department of the Lansing-based Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service Inc., which advocates for people with disabilities, worried that the bills could have a chilling effect.

"It's a shame that somebody might be turning out sham letters to take advantage of something that's really needed for persons with disabilities," Davis said. "It's a legitimate concern but we want to see it addressed in a way that wouldn't create additional burdens."

The legislation would make it so that a health care provider prescribing an emotional support animal would have to be licensed in Michigan, or licensed in the state in which the person resided the previous 180 days, and would have to have a physical office where patients are treated and where the person was prescribed the animal received treatment during the previous 180 days, according to a legislative analysis of the bills.

The resident's documentation would have to establish that the health care provider has treated them for at least six months, that the person has a disability and what the effects of it are, and how the emotional support animal helps address those. Violation of what would be known as the Misrepresentation of Emotional Support Animals Act could be a up to 90 days in jail, a fine of up to $500 and/or up to 30 days of community service.

Lehman said she doesn't discount the benefits emotional support animals can provide.

"I believe wholeheartedly they can be a very valid form of therapy," she said.

The bills are sponsored by Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, and Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, and were the subject of a hearing in the Regulatory Reform Committee last month. They were introduced in September.

The Senate bills are 608-610 and are sponsored by Sen. Dale Zorn, R-Ida. They were introduced last month and referred to the Senate Committee on Local Government, where they had a hearing late last month.

- Editor's Note: This story has been edited to correct I. Matthew Miller's role with the Property Management Association of Michigan.

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November 25, 2019