Question: I run a rental property that has a "no pets" policy. I have a tenant who has made a reasonable-accommodation request to have a companion dog. I understand that I need to let her have her dog, because companion animal support dogs are not pets. But I'm worried her dog will tear up the flooring and destroy the apartment. I would like to charge her extra rent or get an additional deposit from her in order to protect the property from future expenses. When I brought up that possibility, she told me that I can't do that under the Fair Housing laws. Is she right?
Answer: The short answer is yes, she is right. Regardless of what kind of assistance animal the tenant has — a companion cat or dog, a therapy animal or a certified service dog — under the Fair Housing laws, it is not a pet but a part of the disabled tenant's medical treatment.
Just as you would not charge extra rent or security deposit for a wheelchair, diabetes medication or a special hospital-style bed, you cannot charge a disabled tenant additional rent or a higher security deposit because he or she has an assistance animal.
Charging an extra fee or deposit imposes an unreasonable burden for tenants with disabilities who need assistance animals, and it places a financial burden on something necessary for their full use and enjoyment of their apartment that non-disabled tenants do not have to bear. Such fees are tantamount to charging someone for having a disability.
You can still hold tenants with assistance animals liable for any damage the animal causes, however, just as you hold non-disabled tenants liable for any damage to the property that they might cause.
If you are concerned that the security deposit will not be enough to cover the potential damage, consider charging a higher security deposit for all tenants. Instead of charging half a month's rent as a security deposit, for example, charge an entire month's rent.
As long as the method of calculating the security deposit is the same for all tenants, regardless of whether they have a service animal, you will be fine.
Van Deursen is director of Dispute Resolution Programs for Project Sentinel, a Bay Area nonprofit. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.