Can emotional support animal (ESA) fraud in the rental housing industry be reduced by modernizing pet policies?
By Judy Bellack
Talk to apartment owners and operators about the issues plaguing their communities, and fraudulent emotional support animal (ESA) accommodation requests are bound to come up.
Industry-wide statistics do not appear to exist, but onsite team after onsite team can testify to the significant uptick in recent years of ESA accommodation requests, legitimate and otherwise. Vetting and verifying these requests can be a challenging and time-consuming process for operators.
Make no mistake: many, many ESA accommodation requests are legitimate, and ESAs provide critical aid to residents with anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, chronic stress, post-traumatic stress disorder or neurodivergence-based disabilities like autism.
Housing operators must accommodate legitimate ESA requests regardless of pet restrictions, and they cannot charge pet rent or other pet-related fees for ESAs. Not accommodating legitimate requests will subject rental housing owners and operators to fair housing violations and the fines and/or lawsuits that accompany those violations.
Still, there’s no denying that a portion of accommodation requests are made in bad faith, and an entire cottage industry has arisen to provide the supporting materials to help these emotional support animal fraud requests succeed.
As owners and operators consider ways to reduce ESA fraud, they should consider the impact that adjusting pet policies and fees could have.
An incentive to submit emotional support animal fraud requests?
The typical apartment community in the U.S. accepts pets – but not without significant restrictions. In fact, according to the Pet-Inclusive Housing Report, only 8 percent of rental units have no pet restrictions.
Apartment communities usually have a weight limit on pets (typically between 25 to 40 pounds) and often ban any number of larger dog breeds entirely, even though researchers have concluded that a dog’s breed is not a good predictor of its behavior. A limit of one pet per unit also is common.
And then there are the pet-related fees, which can quickly become a real financial burden for many renter households. Theoretically refundable deposits in the range of $200-$500 per pet are common, as are one-time non-refundable fees of $250 per pet. Many communities also charge monthly pet rent that’s in the ballpark of $30-$50 per month per pet.
We are a pet-obsessed culture. More than 70 percent of U.S. households have a pet, and the vast majority of these households view their pet as an indispensable member of their family.
Considering this, it’s perhaps not surprising that many renters, rather than surrendering or rehoming their large or breed-restricted pet, will try to gain access under the guise of emotional support in order to keep their families together. It’s also not shocking that some renters may go this route to avoid what can be truly onerous pet-related fees.
Clearly it’s not OK to lie, and it’s not OK to make things more difficult for those who legitimately need an emotional assistance animal by creating an atmosphere of distrust.
At the same time, rental housing owners and operators should think about how outdated pet policies and fees may be creating incentives for residents to submit fraudulent requests. They should ask themselves if ESA fraud is yet another indicator that the industry’s pet policies are no longer relevant for today’s renter.
By decreasing or even eliminating pet restrictions and fees, apartment communities can not only reduce ESA fraud – they can experience real business benefits like an expanded pool of potential renters and increased retention rates. Onsite teams will manage fewer potentially uncomfortable and tedious situations during the leasing process as well.
The time has come for the rental housing industry to modernize its pet policies – and rampant ESA fraud is one powerful indication of the needed change.
About the author:
Judy Bellack is the multifamily industry principal for the non-profit Michelson Found Animals Foundation, helping to advance the Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative. She is a 30-year veteran of the multifamily industry, holding various executive leadership positions with some of the foremost supplier companies. Judy has served both as Chair of NAA’s National Suppliers’ Council and NMHC’s Supplier-Partner Alliance and was the recipient of NAA’s Outstanding Supplier in 2010. She currently operates a consulting practice advising start-up technologies in the multifamily space.