Managing the Business Risks of Animals | Think Realty | A Real Estate of Mind

Managing the Business Risks of Animals

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Pets and assistance animals add liability to your business.

There are two Ps that can cause property damage: People and Pets. If you are a property manager, then you deal with both daily. Pets are animals but animals are not always pets. This is demonstrated when dealing with Assistance Animals (e.g., service/companion/emotional/therapy/etc.) These animals are not pets, but rather, serve as an assistive device to help an individual with a disability.

Pets are not a protected class. Housing providers and property managers are free to accept/decline as they see fit. The reality, though, is approximately 55 percent of applicants have a pet and the average is 1.3 pets per household. You can implement a no pet policy but, arguably, with such a high percentage of pet ownership, it can be a costly policy. That said, property managers should understand the risks when dealing with pets because, after all, if something happens it’s going to be considered on your watch.

There are three areas, known as the ABCs, to help significantly improve pet diligence: Affirmation, Behavioral, and Compatibility. Affirmation is getting the pet owner on the record about the general care of their pet such as having current vaccinations as well as going to a veterinarian on a regular basis. Behavioral is ensuring there is a stated history about a pet’s past and present behaviors such as knowing if Fluffy has ever bitten a person or another animal. Compatibility is having more details on a pet’s breed, weight, sex, pictures, vaccinations, and more. The ABCs can vary greatly for each pet. Pets are not equal, nor are the pets’ owners.

Under HUD and the Fair Housing Act, assistance animals are intended for individuals with a disability and disability-related need for housing. The problem in the housing industry is that assistance animal fraud is rampant. It’s sad, but true, that some pet owners will try to claim their pet is an assistance animal just to avoid paying a pet deposit/pet fee/pet rent. The FHAct is intended to protect those who legitimately need assistance animals, but there is an incredible amount of complexity in reviewing each claim. Property managers are not fair housing experts so the pressure to handle these claims correctly is compounded by a lack of expertise. There are some helpful published documents from both HUD and the ADA, but there are some policy areas that are silent and lack specificity. There is very little case law to reference so property managers must do their best to determine if the requester’s documentation is reliable, credible, and meets the test of reasonableness.

For individuals with non-obvious disabilities, it’s advisable to ask the two HUD permissible questions: request documentation affirming the disability and disability-related need for the assistance animal, and confirm the animal does not present a direct health or safety threat to others or has a past history of such behavior. It’s inadvisable to request documentation specifically about the requester’s disability, share/provide access to requester’s medical records with others (HIPAA privacy laws), limit the documentation to medical doctors/physicians only (there is no exhaustive list), implement breed and size restrictions, and charge a fee of any kind. There are still subjective areas of interpretation such as telemedicine, formulaic online questionnaires, video counseling, and for-profit businesses exclusively focused on issuing recommendation letters for assistance animals. In summary, dealing with assistance animals is complex and stressful.

For clarity, you may charge fees for pets, but you cannot charge for assistance animals. There is a real opportunity for housing providers and property managers to generate new pet-related revenues assuming one has the insight into the ABCs of a specific pet. Variable pet deposits/pet fees/pet rents are rarely utilized but are very achievable when you have the right data at your fingertips.

Property managers are experts at managing rental assets such as single-family homes, multifamily communities, and vacation rentals. Pets and assistance animals are a necessity of the housing industry, but they add additional complexity and liability to your business. It is important to understand your rights as a property manager and realize that not everyone submitting an accommodation request is trying to game the system. Knowledge is power and, when used professionally and properly, it can minimize your firm’s exposure and team’s stress level. Woof!