a white puppy sitting on a porch
Photo by Michelle Riley/The HSUS

Would you believe me if I said that in the past 6 years I have adopted out more than 400 dogs and cats, 99 percent of them either adult cats—often very old cats—or large breed dogs, typically pitbull-type dogs? How about if I said I did this at the cost of approximately $75 a month?

Well, if you don’t believe me … you’re right. I didn’t adopt out 400 hard-to-place dogs and cats. I did something even better ... I kept them in their homes.

You see, I’m a tenant advocate who helps renters with pet-related landlord issues. And I sure wish there were more of us doing this work. I would venture to say that in the animal sheltering field there are few other resources that require so little work and have such a huge payoff.

Most of my advocacy relates to federal fair housing laws that protect the right of tenants to keep their animals (regardless of pet restrictions) if the animal functions as an assistance animal, aka an emotional support animal. Fortunately, these laws are broad in scope, both in terms of the type of animals who qualify as assistance animals (any of the animals we typically call pets), and in regard to the types of disabilities covered (any physical, mental or psychological disability that hinders a person’s daily functioning). These disabilities include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, high blood pressure, chronic pain and diabetes—disabilities that many, many Americans suffer from.

As per federal fair housing laws, tenants may request a “reasonable accommodation” to existing pet rules so that they may keep their animal. This request usually entails providing a letter from a doctor or mental health professional verifying that the tenant suffers from a disability and explaining why the animal is needed to help the person function and/or cope with this disability. With few exceptions, nearly all housing providers must grant the tenant’s request to have the animal in their residence, so long as this doesn’t impose financial hardship on the landlord (it never does), and the animal does not create a nuisance.

As a tenant advocate, I inform people of their right to request reasonable accommodation, I guide them in the process of obtaining the necessary documentation to verify their animal’s status as an assistance animal, and, if needed, I contact the property manager, landlord or the landlord’s attorney to advocate for the tenant’s right to keep the animal.

To give you a sense of what tenant advocacy is, and how easy and impactful it is, here are two recent successes.

I first heard from Jamel last March when he was in the lobby of NYC’s Animal Care Center (ACC) and he left a desperate plea for help on my voicemail. I saved the message because it was so poignant: “A couple of days ago I brought my dog into ACC because I moved into NYCHA [NYC’s Housing Authority]. Now they tell me that I can’t have him and that I will be breaching my lease. Long story short, I wound up rushing my dog over to ACC 3 days ago. I want to know how I can go about getting my dog back. Please get back in touch with me. Please. I love my dog that much. I need you to get back in touch with me as soon as possible. Thank you.”

Jamel had rescued his cane corso, Smokey, three months prior to moving into New York City’s public housing, which has weight and breed restrictions, including a 25 pound maximum weight. Smokey weighs 85 pounds. Three months after moving into his public housing apartment, he received a notice that his lease would be terminated if he did not immediately remove Smokey. What a horrible choice he was faced with: lose his home knowing that he and his family had nowhere else to live, or give up his dog.

I returned Jamel’s call and explained that I might be able to assist him in getting Smokey back into his home, and I asked his permission to ask him some questions about any disabilities he might have. It turned out that he did suffer from a disability and likely met the standard of disability under federal fair housing laws. NYC’s Animal Care Center was willing to hold Smokey for a few days while Jamel obtained the appropriate documentation verifying Smokey’s function as an assistance animal, and then Smokey was neutered and the return-to-owner fees waived. Needless to say, it was a joyful reunion!

But the work was not done. The local manager of Jamel’s development refused to grant Jamel’s request for reasonable accommodation and his case was sent to NYC’s public housing headquarters. A colleague, Joyce Friedman, attended the meeting and advocated for Jamel’s right to keep Smokey, since Jamel had fulfilled all the requirements necessary to register his dog as an assistance animal (even though serving as an advocate isn’t difficult, it’s critical that tenants have someone to speak for them, because many are too intimidated by the process to effectively advocate for themselves). After reviewing the paperwork, the administrator agreed and Smokey was officially registered as Jamel’s assistance animal. Smokey is now safe in Jamel’s home, and as this video demonstrates, Smokey is quite the lucky dog.

The other recent success involves Jerome, a veteran living in South Carolina, and his pitbull-type dog, Bo. Recently, Jerome’s landlord told him that he would renew his lease, but Jerome would have to pay an extra (and arbitrary) $100 a month to keep Bo in the home. Jerome, who lives on a fixed income, could not afford to pay this amount each month. Fortunately, he reached out to The HSUS’s South Carolina State Director, and the information reached me. I explained to Jerome how federal fair housing laws could potentially protect a tenant in his situation, because assistance animals are not considered pets and there can be no fees associated with their residing in the tenant’s home. In other words, pet deposits, monthly pet fees and increased rent relating to the occupancy of pets are not allowed if the pet is verified as an assistance animal.

Jerome informed me that he suffers from a disability and has a doctor at the VA hospital who would verify this and explain how his dog functions as an assistance animal. I faxed his doctor a sample letter that would help guide her as an advocate for Jerome. Providing this sample letter is an important part of this work, since many doctors and mental health professionals are not familiar with what should and should not be noted in such a letter.

Jerome’s doctor faxed her letter to me and I contacted Jerome’s landlord to inform him of the dog’s status as an assistance animal.

All told, I spent about two hours on Jamel’s case and about ninety minutes on Jerome’s. And it didn’t cost my program one cent. Contrast this with the amount of time and effort that would be needed to shelter and rehome these two dogs.

Tenant advocacy obviously has its limitations: notably, there are many pet owners who do not suffer from disabilities and cannot claim their pet as an assistance animal. But without question, there are thousands of animals needlessly surrendered to shelters each year because their owners are not aware of their rights. A little tenant advocacy goes a long way.

Have you served as a tenant advocate? Tell us about it in the comments below!

About the Author

Matt Wildman

Matt Wildman was a tenant advocate under the auspices of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) for four years, and now volunteers as a tenant advocate for The Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals. Matt has worked as a humane educator and volunteer coordinator at NYC’s Animal Care Centers, and he served as an NYC public high school history teacher for eight years. He can be reached at matt@animalalliancenyc.org.


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