I have a prospective tenant who wants to move into a vacant unit and she has a comfort pet. Her financials are good, but I’d rather rent to another tenant whose financials are just as good but who doesn’t have a comfort pet. Can I do so without it seeming like I’m discriminating against the other tenant?
The first problem is that you are referring to the prospective tenant’s comfort animal as a “pet.” Comfort or service animals are not pets. Rather, by law, these animals perform a function separate and apart from the love and entertainment one derides from a pet. In the case of a service animal such as a seeing-eye dog, the disabled person needs the animal to in most instances perform a physical function such as acting as a guide. A comfort animal, conversely, often exists to alleviate an ailment such as anxiety or hyper tension. In essence, a comfort or service animal performs a vital function for a human being as opposed to a pet which more or less acts as a luxury in one’s life.
Many landlords are frustrated by what they perceive to be widespread abuse inherent amongst the tenant community in that it is relatively easy for almost anyone to obtain a doctor’s note which in turn requires a landlord to accept a tenant’s dog or cat as a comfort or service animal. Some landlords, with good reason, believe that the standard used by medical and other care providers to write up a diagnosis for a tenant is much too lenient and lax. That may be; however, until the law is changed, we have to accept substantiated requests from care providers on behalf of existing and prospective tenants.
Therefore, you need to treat this prospective tenant as though he or she is coming to you without a pet. In other words, ignore the fact that the tenant would be moving in with an animal. Once that issue is taken out of the equation, by your own admission the financials are good. If this applicant was first in line, the application ought to be accepted. Otherwise, yes, you would expose yourself to a disability discrimination lawsuit. (Incidentally, these actions are very expensive and usually not covered by insurance.)
The SFAA now offers a class on comfort and service animals. The instructors discuss in detail the types of disabilities warranting animal assistance, how landlords should process requests from tenants and tenant applicants for service animals, and liability owners face should they discriminate, or be perceived to be discriminating, against tenants with physical and/or mental disabilities. This topic is also discussed monthly at the SFAA’s legal question and answer session before the general membership meeting. In sum, the topic of service and comfort animals in our apartments is very complex, and it justifies a discussion well beyond this short article. As such, utilize the SFAA resources and consult with an attorney should you run across an application from a prospective tenant, or receive a request from an existing tenant, that seeks to introduce a service or comfort animal into the apartment. And remember, do not simply move onto the next applicant who comes to you without such a disclosure, as to do so is unlawful discrimination that may cost you the equity in your building!