Therapy Pig Dispute Offers Valuable Lessons to Landlords and Tenants

iStock_000006319699-300pxLandlords and tenants alike might not see how a story about a homeowners’ association and a pig pertains to them. But, although the facts are unusual and may seem foreign to your experience, the dispute nevertheless serves as a reminder of key rights and responsibilities when it comes to rental properties and pets. Indeed, there are important lessons that both landlords and tenants can learn from this dispute and should keep in mind throughout a tenancy.

The dispute concerns a Lake Worth, Florida, homeowners’ association’s contention that a family doesn’t have the right to keep a “therapy pig” in their home. According to a recent report by the Sun-Sentinel, the family claims that their pig, Wilbur, isn’t merely a pet but offers invaluable emotional support to their children, who have been diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s. However, the homeowners’ association argues that no matter what beneficial purpose Wilbur may serve, keeping a 65-pound potbellied pig in a home crosses the line.

While, on one level, this story is about a homeowner’s association and a pig, it’s also an example of a common scenario in which an individual claims a need for a housing accommodation based on a disability. Landlords and tenants should take note:

  1. Housing discrimination laws apply broadly. Although this issue involves a homeowner’s association, it could just have easily been a dispute between a tenant and a landlord. The Fair Housing Act (FHA), a federal law barring discrimination based on disability and other factors, broadly applies to residential property owners, managers, and others who could interfere with a tenant’s civil rights.
  2. Both sides must take this topic seriously. Landlords should consistently approach the larger topic of disability accommodations with a sense of importance and care. If you’re a landlord, you needn’t grant every tenant’s request for a service animal or other accommodation, but you should seriously consider all such requests. This way, you can determine if a request is reasonable or be in a position to justify why you must deny a request. Also, tenants who believe they need an accommodation should present their request in writing to their landlord. Even though this formality isn’t required by law, approaching a landlord in this way will help ensure that the landlord understands your request and takes it seriously.
  3. Tenants’ service animal requests are limited only by reasonableness. When a tenant asks a landlord to keep an animal as an accommodation for a disability, it must be treated as any other accommodation request. This means that a tenant must show that he needs the particular accommodation in connection with a disability, and that granting the request would be reasonable. According to the FHA, an accommodation is reasonable if it doesn’t impose an undue financial or administrative burden. As a practical matter, requests for pigs and other exotic animals (which aren’t widely welcome at rental properties to begin with) would be less likely to pass muster as reasonable. But, because the FHA doesn’t identify any animal or breed for exclusion, animals other than cats and dogs may qualify. In any event, if an accommodation request must be denied as unreasonable, the landlord and tenant should try to come up with a viable alternative accommodation.
  4. Landlords can have pet rules but must enforce them with care. The FHA doesn’t bar landlords from creating rules limiting pets to certain weights or even banning pets from the property altogether. Landlords just need to be ready to bend or break their rules, if necessary, to let a tenant keep an animal that’s needed to reasonably accommodate the tenant’s disability. Also, landlords can enforce pet rules aimed at keeping people safe and healthy, regardless of the circumstances behind the animal’s presence in an apartment. For example, landlords can require tenants to clean up after their animals and make sure they’re leashed, crated, or otherwise under their owners’ control while in common areas.