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Service animals: A common discrimination topic in MT housing

Big Sky Connection
Accommodations for service and assistance animals in housing is a thorny and common issue in Montana. There are a number of ins and outs for what is acceptable under the law for people with disabilities. Comments from Pam Bean, executive director, Montana Fair Housing.

Click on the image above for the audio.   In Montana, a service animal is a dog or miniature horse trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. (Africa Studio/Adobe Stock)

Eric Tegethoff
January 25, 2022

The most common housing discrimination issue in Montana is landlords not making accommodations for service and assistance animals, according to Pam Bean, executive director of Montana Fair Housing, a private nonprofit that addresses housing discrimination.

Bean said accommodations in housing in the state are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act and Montana Human Rights Act, allowing for both service and assistance animals. She said people with disabilities can request accommodations for disability-related needs.

"Any animal that is needed for a person with a disability is considered a service or assistance animal," she said, "regardless of what the doctor or the household might call it."

Bean noted that service animals help people perform tasks, while assistance animals can help with things such as emotional support. She said housing providers can't charge fees for approved service or assistance animals, even if they normally charge a pet deposit, for instance. Bean said she expects there likely will be a marked increase over the next month in the number of filings with state and federal agencies over the issue of service and assistance animals.

In most cases, Bean said, requests for animal accommodations are meant for people with permanent disabilities. Those in need of assistance on a shorter-term basis can run into issues. Bean gave the example of someone who needs an assistance animal for a year, but is living in a place where pets aren't allowed. She said people have to sort out how the lease is going to be handled, and what will happen to the animal and its owner at the end of that time.

"Can we set the lease up so that it's not interfering with the anticipated expiration of this request? Because we don't want to see the household get slammed with lease-break fees or something like that," she said.

Bean said housing providers have a right to know how a person's disability affects their life, that it will be for a substantial amount of time, and the animal's role in aiding that person. However, they are not entitled to know a person's specific diagnosis. Unfortunately, she said many people look online and pay for a statement saying their pet is an "emotional support animal."

"Obviously, a lot of those are fraudulent, and so consumers are really wasting money by going to those sites," she said. "And housing providers are wondering, 'Is this an acceptable form to verify disability?'"


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