Support animals and housing: People trying to ‘game the system’

Investigators

York attorney Sara Austin has handled several cases involving support animals and housing.

“I do represent people on both sides, so I see all sides of this,” Austin said.

The Federal Fair Housing Act protects service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. Pennsylvania also has a new state law.

“Which we have had in effect almost a year now,” Austin said. “The Assistance and Service Animal Integrity Act is defined much more broadly. An animal can be a service animal, as under the ADA, and it could also be an emotional support animal.

“Animals can be anything,” she added. “It can be an iguana, gorilla, parakeet, but they still have to serve a purpose for the person that has them. They can’t just have a pet and say, ‘Oh, well, now I need an emotional support animal.'”

While Pennsylvania law broadens the definition of what a support animal can be, it defines a disability less broadly.

“Disability can only be an actual physical or mental impairment. It is not a record of having an impairment. It is not regarded as having an impairment,” Austin said.

Austin says most of her current cases deal with planned communities or homeowner/condominium associations, which often have pet restrictions. The Assistance and Service Animal Integrity Act allows those associations and planned communities to ask for documentation if a person’s disability is not visible.

“The association cannot only request medical documentation. Because it is a hidden or not visible disability, they can also request specific written information as to why the person needs that particular animal as opposed to another animal,” Austin said.

The animal does not have to be allowed if it is a burden, poses a threat, or causes damage to the property.

“This law is there to help people. It is not there to just provide another outlet for somebody to game the system,” Austin said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who try to take advantage of the various laws that are out there, and they really don’t need [a support animal], they just want two pets or something that doesn’t fit within the restrictions of where they are living. It really makes it a lot more difficult for the people who are disabled and need assistance.”

The Assistance and Service Animal Integrity Act makes it a criminal offense to misrepresent an animal as a service or emotional support animal for use in housing or provide false documentation. A person who commits fraud can face jail time and up to a $1,000 fine.

Austin says there are some fraud cases working through the legal system now.

ABC27 could not find any data on the number or types of support animals being used in the state. Support animals do not have to be registered with any state or federal agency.

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