In our discussion of the Hidden Disability Conundrum, linked here, we noted that landlords do not have to take a tenant’s word for it that he or she is disabled and has a disability related need for an exception to the landlord’s rules and policies. Instead, the landlord may require that a tenant provide reliable verification if the disability or the need for the accommodation is not obvious or known to the landlord.
Although I’ve repeatedly stressed that landlords shouldn’t try to play the role of a medical professional and question medical opinions, this doesn’t mean that you must accept whatever documentation that the tenant provides on the issue of his disability or his need for the accommodation. As most of you know, this area is ripe for abuse by tenants, especially when it comes to assistance animals in college towns. College students love to bring their pets with them to school, and many university-area landlords do not allow pets in their properties. So, the more devious among them develop an “emotional disability” that requires the presence of their “support animal”. I am a firm believer in the reality and the struggle of mental and emotional illness, and am by no means questioning the reality of those conditions or the integrity of anyone affected by them. However, I am also aware that the certain tenants fabricate emotional disabilities to achieve their own goals, such as having their pet live with them. It is these devious few that make it harder for those truly affected by a mental or emotional disability to get the assistance that they need.
The obstacle for the devious tenant in this situation is obtaining the necessary written verification of his “disability” and “need” for the animal. In days gone by, such tenants had to hope they had a family doctor or friend of the family in the medical profession who was willing to excuse his ethics. Now, the task is much simpler, as the internet is full of medical “professionals” who are willing (for a fee, of course) to write letters to landlords (even expediting the delivery, for a larger fee, of course) stating that the tenant is disabled and has a disability related need for the animal. Some these “professionals” meet with the tenant over the phone or via Skype for a whole hour in order to be able to say they are “treating” the tenant. Others don’t have a whole hour, so they require the tenant to complete a 15-minute online exam. Sometimes, even the scammer gets scammed, as the "professional" requires an online payment in advance, then never sends the letter.
So, for landlords looking to avoid the scams and work with those who are truly disabled, what should you look for in a disability verification letter? Here are four necessary elements:
- The qualifications of the person writing the letter. It should be a professional in a healthcare-related field.
- The nature of the relationship between the professional and the tenant. The professional should actually have evaluated the tenant in a manner sufficient to diagnose the tenant as being disabled (as defined by Fair Housing law) and to determine that the animal is necessary as a result of the disability. The amount of time required to make this diagnosis will vary depending on the disability and the need in question.
- A statement that the person is disabled under Fair Housing law. NOTE: You may not require that the specific disability be disclosed.
- A description of how the animal is necessary to allow the tenant use and enjoy his/her housing.
Verification letters from online “professionals” typically run afoul of Number Two above, as there is no real physician-patient relationship that would allow a reliable diagnosis. A major red flag on this issue is a letter from a “professional” that is far away from where the tenant lives or has lived and does not indicate the length of the relationship between the tenant and professional.
Verification letters from doctors who are merely friends of the family typically run afoul of Number Four above. These “professionals” typically send a short letter stating that they are the treating physician and that a dog would help the tenant cope with an undisclosed emotional illness. Such letters give you no sense of how the animal is necessary as a result of a disability.
In both cases, you can ask for more information. You should make this request in writing to the tenant. It is a good practice to use a verification form that requires the professional to provide the necessary information, but, ultimately, you cannot require that the tenant or the professional use your form. You can only require that reliable and complete information is provided, using the four elements above as your guide. As I’ve noted before, don’t cut off communication with your tenant because the first try doesn’t resolve the accommodation issue. Continue to interact and communicate with your tenant on the issue to get the information you need so that you can adequately evaluate the tenant’s request.
Ultimately, if the tenant does not provide reliable verification of the disability or the disability related need for the accommodation, you can refuse to allow it. However, this should be a last resort after a good-faith and well-documented effort to work with the tenant on the issue. As the press releases from HUD over the past few weeks have shown, it is typically less expensive to allow a suspect accommodation than to too hastily deny a legitimately needed accommodation.
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