When it comes to assessing “emotional support animal” verification letters that are questionable at best, housing providers need not grant those requires automatically. In fact, you already have an important tool already on hand to ensure the integrity of these requests.
Communication is key. A helpful nugget that is frequently overlooked is the concept of the interactive process, that is, engaging in an informal dialogue where the housing provider and resident address any concerns with the verification letter. For example, if the individual provides verification that fails to state how the animal will alleviate a symptom or effect of the disability, the housing provider is entitled to request additional information before making a final determination.
Many housing providers automatically grant animal accommodation requests, despite their misgivings. This often leads to resentment and mistrust which is not a productive way to build a healthy community. And rejecting a request outright puts a housing provider at risk of being subject to steep penalties for failing to engage in a discussion with the resident.
If you suspect the letter is unreliable, you can start the interactive process by requesting more reliable verification that provides specific information missing in the original document. Many property managers have been hesitant to push back on these letters, but they need not be. In fact, the Virginia Real Estate Board and Fair Housing Board provided a guidance document on this exact scenario, noting that “[housing providers] should not be daunted by the prospect of potential litigation into accepting dubious verifications limited to vague statements of how an assistance animal would benefit the requester, but rather should insist on supplemental credible confirmation of underlying disability.”
Yes, you may receive a nastygram in response to questioning the document, but you do not have to let that intimidate you. Think about it: Threatening litigation or filing a discrimination claim is a disproportional response to asking for a little more information. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the resident doth protest too much, methinks.
A quick word about authenticating verification letters. This should consist of no more than asking the author if they wrote the letter and signed it. Anything else can run afoul of privacy laws and be construed as harassment.
An individual who has a need for an assistance animal should not have trouble obtaining supplemental verification, especially considering the broad spectrum of information that can be used. If the resident doesn’t provide any additional verification, you’re in a much stronger place to deny the request. In fact, when pressed for more reliable documentation, many residents don’t respond. This is an easy way to ensure the integrity of animal accommodation requests in your community.
Knowing and asserting your rights and responsibilities, engaging in productive communication with your residents, and feeling confident about pushing back appropriately when warranted really goes a long way in weeding out problematic requests. You already have the tools at your fingertips, you just need to use them.