Assistance animals and other fair housing hot spots
6/12/2017 1:40:23 PM

By Paul Flogstad, RHM, NCHM instructor
Principal, Property Management Solutions

"I’ve been doing things this way for over 25 years and I am not about to change now."

"The government can’t tell me what to do."

"Tenants have too many rights as it is. What about landlord rights?"

I have been involved in fair housing education and consulting for over 10 years and I hear statements like this all the time. As the fair housing ombudsman for the state of South Dakota, I respond to fair housing complaints that come in on a toll-free line. It gives me a good sense of the issues people are contending with – and, by extension, where the gaps exist in fair housing knowledge.

Approximately 79% of the calls are landlord/tenant issues such as deposit return, lease disputes, and evictions. The balance of the calls are truly fair housing in nature. My goal is to resolve as many of the issues as I can. Even the thinnest pancake has two sides so I listen to both the landlord and the tenant to get the complete story. I work with the Attorney General’s office, law students, pro-bono lawyers, and state and municipal government to settle these disputes.

Many cases result from a lack of understanding on both sides of the issue. I try to emphasize that tenants have rights, but they also have obligations – e.g., paying the rent, taking care of the property, and following the rules. Landlords have rights, too, but they are also obliged to keep the property safe and livable. Approximately 60% of these types of cases are resolved before they reach HUD as a formal complaint.

Assistance animals are a hot-button issue. Some landlords are reluctant to allow assistance animals into their property, especially if they have a no-pet clause in their lease. They don’t understand that disabled individuals have the same right to enjoy the property as non-disabled individuals. They view assistance animal rules as an overreach of the law and a scam just to have a pet. They get very upset when they learn that an assistance animal can be of any size or breed. In one case, it was a miniature horse. In another, it was a monkey. Situations like these prompt the comments I listed at the beginning of this article.

Frequently I hear complaints of sexual abuse by landlords. Typically, the victim is a single mom barely making it and willing to do almost anything to keep a roof over her children's heads. In one case, the landlord was on the preferred landlord list for a women’s shelter and leveraged his position to exploit a desperate woman. In another case, the landlord texted his intent to the victim. She saved the texts, so that case was easy to close.

How do we reduce fair housing violations? Education is the best place to start – for landlords and residents alike. Ultimately, we all need to stand up and help victims of discrimination. We cannot afford to be complacent about protecting the rights of all people.

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