Landlord Tenant Q&A with CATHERINE M. MATTHEWS (R), GRI

Q. I have been seeing all types of articles in the newspaper and on the internet about service animals and comfort animals. I have two rentals.

I do not want animals in either of them. I may end up living in one at some point when I retire and I am highly allergic to dogs and cats both. What is the difference between a service animal and a comfort animal and do I have to allow them? I do have documentation from my doctor with a medical history of these allergies.

A. This is a great question and has been the one of the items in the fore-front of Fair Housing regulations for the past several years.

A service animal is trained for specific tasks. Service animals are defined by the Department of Justice as only dogs in Title II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act as amended on March 15, 2011. However, if you read articles about this act you must be aware that it only applies to public accommodations. Housing is a different story altogether and some specifics may vary by State.

In doing my research, I relied heavily on information provided by the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission. I have found that a person with a disability may request the use of an “assistance” animal as a reasonable accommodation under the law. The accommodation may require making an exception to the no pet rule; this applies to landlords as well as condo associations. An assistance animal is not a pet. Assistance animals are defined as those that work, assist, or perform tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability. They can also be animals that provide emotional support. Assistance animals can include: service animals, support animals, therapy animals and comfort animals. The animals are not limited to dogs. All assistance animals do not require formal training. So to answer your question, with relation to service and comfort animals as defined by our State, they fall together with relation to housing accommodations.

Requests for the accommodation can be made orally or in writing. A person with a disability is defined as anyone that has a physical or mental impairment which limits one or more major life activities.

As a landlord you may ask the tenant to provide information from a health care professional (physical or mental) or a social worker that the tenant has a disability. You may NOT ask what the disability is or its severity or otherwise inquire. You may then ask if the animal that is requested alleviates one or more of the tenant’s symptoms which limits their life activities. If the disability is apparent, such as blindness or using a wheelchair, you may not ask any questions whatsoever. The animal must be allowed everywhere on the property, including amenities of a housing complex unless it would pose a health or safety hazard.

You cannot require additional deposits or insurance for the animal since it is not a pet. If you require every tenant to have a renter’s insurance policy, then you can require renter’s insurance. However, if you only require renter’s insurance of tenants with pets, then you may not require it. Tenants can still be held liable for any damage (beyond wear and tear) caused by the animal and are responsible for picking up after the animal, noise it may create, keeping the animal under control, having vaccinations and abiding by City and County ordinances.

Nowhere do I see an exception that you could use for your allergies. Assistance animals help people in our community with disabilities; we all deserve the ability to enjoy our lives. The rules are less stringent in housing than in public places and these are rules that each landlord should be aware of and abide by when renting their property. If you have any questions, please call an attorney of your choosing or a member of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission at 808-586-8636.

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