Damien knows when Vicki Landers is having a bad day.
His snuggles convey a message, she said: “It’s OK, Mom. You’re OK. Everything’s gonna be fine. I’m here.”
The cat is a comfort when she can’t get out of bed because of her anxiety disorder, or her bipolar depression, or periodic dizziness stemming from a craniotomy, or some combination of those. He’s a calming presence during hypomanic episodes.
“Sometimes you just need someone to talk to that won’t talk back,” said Landers, 51, executive director of the nonprofit Disability Pride Philadelphia. ”Someone who just loves you no matter what.”
But when Landers and her boyfriend, Renato Horton, 51, who has dissociative identity disorder, moved into their North Philadelphia apartment almost four years ago, they were told they could have only one emotional support animal, even though Horton came with his cat, Angel, and each had recommendations from their doctors. A Philadelphia advocate for people with disabilities explained to the landlord that each renter was allowed a support animal.
It’s the kind of confusion that led the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to issue guidelines and best practices last month that lay out the responsibilities of landlords and tenants when it comes to navigating the sometimes confusing world of support animals.
The new guidance includes what documentation property owners can seek, questions they should and shouldn’t ask, and differences between service animals and support animals. It requires a clear connection between a disability and the need for an animal. It specifically tells property owners that the rules apply to tenants asking to have more than one assistance animal.
The department developed the guide with help from the National Association of Realtors, which said property owners have seen a “huge uptick” in the last several years of tenants abusing the law with the help of fake online certificates to get pets into pet-free buildings or to avoid fees for pets.
At the same time, the number of federal Fair Housing Act complaints about allowing assistance animals is “significantly increasing,” according to HUD, and is one of the most common types of fair housing complaint HUD receives.
The assistance animal rules are “not necessarily intuitive," said Koert Wehberg, executive director of the Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities in Philadelphia. “Because there’s such a fine line between a support animal and a pet. It’s hard to thread that needle.”
The new guidance says that landlords must accept “animals commonly kept in households” beyond dogs and cats, such as fish, turtles, small birds, and rabbits. For “unique animals,” a tenant has the “substantial burden” of proving they are necessary.
For people with disabilities, “finding housing is hard enough,” without also having to fight with landlords to allow their support animals, Wehberg said, adding that the new guidance should help.
Landers, for example, had to wait for years to find an accessible apartment. She has problems using stairs because of balance issues, the result of a surgery to remove a tumor from her head that also left her deaf in one ear. She had to walk up two flights at her old place before a rare spot opened up at Diamond Park apartments, HUD-insured housing for seniors and people with disabilities.
Wehberg said he hopes medical professionals also note the guidelines and learn to include more explanation in their letters to landlords about why their patients need support animals.
Required notes from health-care professionals have been part of the problem, said Megan Booth, director of federal housing policy at the National Association of Realtors. It’s easier than ever for tenants to go online and buy any kind of certificate they want — a point HUD acknowledges in its guidelines.
It’s been hard for property owners to know which requests for animal accommodations are legitimate, especially when they can’t see a person’s disability. They’re also trying to balance the needs of all their tenants, including those who may have moved into a pet-free apartment because of severe allergies, Booth said.
“There are certainly many reasons people would legitimately need an assistant animal. And landlords want to make sure they have access to those," she said. "But it’s hard when people are pretending.”
Booth called HUD’s new guidance "a step in the right direction” but said there’s still confusion about who can vouch for a person’s needs for an emotional support animal.
Bianca Waliddin, the advocate who helped Landers and the executive director of Liberty Housing Development Corp., a Philadelphia nonprofit that develops housing for people with disabilities, said some landlords want to see that an animal can complete helpful tasks, a trait associated with service animals, not emotional support animals.
“They don’t get it that companionship is what’s important to the person that needs the animal,” she said.
“Some private landlords you talk to, once you send them the information about fair housing rights, they’re fine. They’re on board," Waliddin said. For others, “it’s a mixture of them not knowing or them not wanting to deal with" potential damage an animal could cause.
Booth said members of the National Association of Realtors are glad the federal government is starting to address issues they’ve been facing.
Now, she said, "we need to see how this is actually going to play out in the real world.”