Current Western student perspectives on living with ESAs off campus and resources intended to help.
By Hannah Cross
For Western Washington University third-year Morgan Beecroft, having an emotional support animal (ESA) is like having a companion “[It] helps make everything a little better at the end of the day,” Beecroft said. “Nothing like puppy snuggles in bed after a rough day, after all.”
In her time at Western, Beecroft said she has faced several struggles living off campus with an ESA. The most common one is the misconception surrounding ESAs and their distinction from service animals.
“I’ve been seen as one of those crazy people who bring their dog into a grocery store,” Beecroft said. “If anything, I would want people to know that I know my dog isn’t a service dog in a traditional sense. She stays at home for the most part, but she helps me get out, get out of bed and keep a schedule.”
City of Bellingham Housing Programs Specialist Lisa Manos said the Fair Housing Act protects those belonging to a protected class, and while students are not a protected class, service animal protections fall under the protected class of disability. This class encompasses a wide range of disabilities, from physical to emotional she said.
“An emotional support animal is an animal that works, helps or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability,” Manos said. “Or that provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified effects of a person’s disability.”
Manos said some Bellingham landlords can be very averse to ESAs, or they lack education on the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and how it pertains to student tenants living with ESAs.
“ESAs are not considered normal pets under the FHA, which is why policies pertaining to pets do not apply to ESAs,” Manos said. “That means a landlord is not permitted to charge fees or deposits in connection with an ESA, even though fees and deposits might be charged for normal pets.”
Sydney Nelson, founder of the Washington State Service Dog Association, said there are resources available to better educate landlords on these policies.
Nelson said landlords should be mindful of the new guidance that HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) put out in January 2020, which clarifies what is required of landlords when a tenant with a disability is seeking accommodation.
She said landlords must provide accommodations to tenants with an observable disability, who have also provided information that reasonably supports the disability.
If the accommodation request is reasonable and the animal is a species commonly kept in households and provides disability mitigation or therapeutic support landlords must provide the necessary accommodations Nelson added.
Western third-year Kelsey Crane said she has struggled to find Bellingham rentals that properly accommodate ESAs and are fully educated on the FHA. She said the main reason she and her cat, Beep Beep, have struggled with off-campus living is because of the misleading reputation associated with ESAs.
“ESAs get a bad rep because people take advantage of the system, making landlords and such think that these people are only getting their animals certified so they don’t have to pay a pet fee and can have their animal in a place that otherwise wouldn’t allow it,” Crane said. “It makes those who genuinely need their ESA to function look bad.”
Manos said there are specific rules and regulations under the Fair Housing Act to protect student tenants’ rights and privacy with ESAs to help avoid these biases.
“Landlords cannot make you pay any extra rent, deposit or fee for having an ESA, cannot ask you for extensive details about your disability, cannot make you register your ESA, cannot request a ‘certification’ for your ESA and cannot require the animal to have specific training relating to a disability,” Manos said.
Manos also said there are steps that student tenants can take to ensure an easier rental process.
“Prepare your letter requesting a reasonable accommodation for your ESA in advance of applying for housing,” she said. “If you do not currently have an ESA but are interested in seeing if you qualify for one, the first step is to seek the help of a health care professional. Real, licensed, health care professionals can write ESA recommendation letters for qualified clients.”
Whatcom Law Advocates Staff Attorney David Henken said he has been advising Whatcom County tenants for almost seven years on their housing rights under state laws. He connects them with resources to keep them informed on current policies.
“I would say most landlords do their best to follow the law and do accommodate support animals,” Henken said.“Some landlords are very skeptical about these kinds of requests where the tenant’s disability is not visible. They usually comply after educating themselves about the law, often by contacting their own attorneys.”
He also said it is fairly common for landlords to initially believe the Fair Housing Act does not apply to them because they are not providing government housing. However, many landlords do provide private housing, which is covered under the act, he said.
“In fact, the Fair Housing Act applies to most private housing including apartments, condominiums, cooperatives, single-family homes, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, group homes, domestic violence shelters, emergency shelters, homeless shelters and dormitories,” Henken said.
Henken said his firm also works with student tenants with ESAs struggling to rent in the Bellingham area by connecting them with resources such as Washington Law Help, a website provided by attorneys with the Northwest Justice Project. He said he provides this as a resource because it has a good guide on making accommodation requests under the Fair Housing Act.
Henken also connects student tenants living with ESAs with two notices provided by HUD, which are easily searchable online.
“These are the 2004 HUD/DOJ Joint Statement on reasonable accommodations, and HUD’s Notice FHEO-20-01 on service animals and support animals. These documents lay out best practices according to HUD,” Henken said in an email response. “They are not laws, but they are influential and they’re very clearly written.”.
Henken also said he recommends student tenants living with ESAs make their accommodation requests in writing. He said if something critical is communicated by voice, it’s often a good idea to follow up with an email or text to avoid potential miscommunication.
“I can’t stress this enough: Communicate with your landlord in writing and keep copies of everything,” Henken said. “While not absolutely required, communicating in writing is the best way to make things clear and keep a record. If your landlord replies in writing, you’ll have clarity and proof.”
Henken said he is always willing and eager to help Whatcom County tenants with any concerns surrounding tenancy with ESAs.
Hannah Cross is the photo editor for The Front and a third-year visual journalism major. Her work focuses on local features and news as well as capturing eye-catching visuals. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.