Service Animals: Everything Landlords Need to Know in Richmond, Virginia

Service Animals: Everything Landlords Need to Know in Richmond, Virginia

Landlords need to understand the laws and regulations surrounding service animals in Richmond, Virginia. It is crucial to have a thorough understanding of what qualifies as a service animal versus a pet, your rights as a landlord, and the additional requirements that come with allowing service animals in your rental properties.

This article will provide all the information you need to navigate service animal accommodations. Let’s dive in!

What is Considered a Service Animal Versus a Pet?

Before we get to the legalities, let's first clarify the distinction between a service animal and a pet. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to perform tasks or work for the benefit of a person with a disability. These tasks can include but are not limited to guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, and assisting those with mobility impairments.

Service animals go through rigorous training to acquire the skills necessary to assist their owners. These highly trained dogs undergo specialized programs that focus on obedience, task training, and socialization. They are taught to perform specific tasks that mitigate their owner's disability, allowing them to live more independently and with a higher quality of life.

While dogs are the most common type of service animal, other animals can also be trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities. For example, miniature horses can be trained as service animals for individuals with mobility impairments.

On the other hand, a pet is an animal kept primarily for companionship or as a source of pleasure. Pets provide emotional support, unconditional love, and companionship to their owners. They are not trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities and do not have the same legal protections as service animals.

Can a Landlord Refuse a Service Animal?

Under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), you cannot refuse to rent to a person with a disability simply because they have a service animal. The FHA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and requires landlords to make reasonable accommodations to allow service animals into their rental properties, even if they have a no-pets policy. In other words, your resident screening processes must be completely fair and equitable.

However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. Landlords are not required to accommodate service animals if:

  1. The rental property has four or fewer units, and the landlord lives in one of the units.

  2. The property is a single-family house rented without the use of a real estate agent.

  3. The accommodation would impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the landlord.

Additional Service Animal Requirements

In addition to allowing service animals, landlords must also comply with the following requirements as outlined by the ADA:

  • Service animals must be under control and on a leash/harness unless the individual's disability prevents the use of these devices or the animal's task requires them to be off-leash.

  • Landlords cannot charge extra fees or deposits for service animals. They are not considered pets.

  • Landlords cannot inquire about the nature or severity of an individual's disability. They may only ask two questions to determine whether the animal qualifies as a service animal:

  1. Is the animal required because of a disability?

  2. What work or task has the animal been trained to perform?

What Documentation is Needed for a Service Animal?

While landlords cannot request documentation as proof of a service animal, it is generally recommended to ask residents for reliable documentation that establishes the need for it. Such documentation can include:

  • Medical records or statements from healthcare professionals.

  • Proof of the individual's disability or impairment.

  • Documentation from a training program or reliable source that demonstrates the animal's task-trained abilities.

Emotional support animals, therapy animals, and comfort animals do not qualify as service animals under the ADA, and different rules may apply to them.

How Residents Should Submit Documentation for a Service Animal

If a resident wishes to have a service animal in your rental property, it is advisable to establish a clear process for submitting documentation. This process should protect the privacy of the resident while ensuring compliance with the law. Here are some best practices to consider:

  • Request that the resident submit documentation in writing, via email or mail.

  • Provide clear instructions on what information is required.

  • Establish a designated contact person who can address any questions or concerns regarding the documentation.

  • Keep all documentation confidential and secure.

When Can a Service Animal be Added to a Lease?

Service animals can be added to a lease at any time, including during the application process, before move-in, or even after a lease has been signed. Landlords cannot deny a person with a disability from acquiring or continuing to keep a service animal in their rental unit, as long as they meet the requirements outlined by the ADA.

Final Thoughts

As a landlord in Richmond, Virginia, understanding the rights and responsibilities surrounding service animals is essential. By knowing the difference between service animals and pets, complying with the FHA and ADA, and establishing a clear process for documentation, you can create a welcoming and inclusive living environment for people with disabilities while ensuring compliance with the law.

Remember, service animals are not just pets; they are essential companions that provide assistance to those who rely on their support. By treating service animals and their handlers with respect and understanding, you contribute to fostering a more inclusive society.

Looking for a Richmond property management company to assist with all the above? Contact our local team today!