WEHOville.com has written about the ways West Hollywood is thought of as dog-friendly (from its animal rights legislation to its array of pet-related businesses) and the ways it isn’t (like a dearth of dog parks).
Most recently we’ve sounded off on no-pet apartments. Now we’ve decided to take just a doggone minute (sorry!) to look at the law as it pertains to those pet bans and, specifically, to the exceptions it carves out.
As we reported previously, a majority of the Creative City’s apartments listed for rent are no-pet zones. However, there are several circumstances under which landlords in WeHo must allow pets.
According to the city, WeHo apartment (not condo) landlords can’t evict tenants for having one or two dogs, cats or birds under 35 pounds if: the tenant is at least 62 years old; is living with a disability; and/or is HIV-positive. One or more of those criteria apply to a significant slice of WeHo residents: 15 percent of West Hollywood residents are seniors (ages 65 and up) and nearly seven percent are HIV-positive, according to last year’s community study.
“The ‘two dogs, cats or birds’ provision in West Hollywood’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance was added to the section of the RSO that says a landlord can evict a tenant for a lease violation,” said Chris Uszler, information coordinator for the city’s Rent Stabilization & Housing Division.
“The intent of the provision was to allow someone who had agreed originally to a no pets lease to get an animal at a later date because his or her life circumstances changed and the animal now would provide important emotional support. It was never intended as a way to move into a no pets building as a new tenant with a pet. That having been said, it seems to me many landlords do in fact allow tenants who are senior/disabled/living with HIV to move in with a pet in an otherwise ‘no pets’ building.
“Of course, using the ‘reasonable accommodation’ provision of the Fair Housing Act would allow someone to move into a no-pets property if they have a statement from a physician that the animal is beneficial regarding a disability.”
Those accomodation letters are submitted by tenants seeking a “reasonable accommodations request” from a landlord in order to be allowed a service animal or an emotional support animal (aka therapy animals). A service animal is trained to “performs tasks or services”—a guide dog for someone who is blind, for example.
Therapy animals, though, are not necessarily trained or certified; they provide “emotional support” for people with conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Therapy dogs have become much more popular over the past three years as their benefits have become better understood, said Sean Tanner of New Leash on Life, a rescue organization that trains therapy dogs. He noted that laws ensuring service dogs have access to public places are “wishy washy” as far as giving therapy dogs access; he’s confident that it’s just a matter of time before they are considered part of the same category.
As far as tenants’ rights to have therapy dogs, Tanner said there is “no uniformity there,” and that laws can be confusing.
In West Hollywood, therapy dogs must be permitted if documenation is provided. That documentation does not have to specify what the tenant’s disability is, and landlords aren’t permitted to ask.
“Documentation from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professional that the individual is disabled and the animal provides emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of an existing disability is sufficient proof,” according to the city.
Some suggest that non-disabled renters use the ordinance as a loophole in order to keep pets where they otherwise would not be allowed.
“I have had issues dealing with therapy animals. It is a complete scam,” said Dennis Block, an attorney who specializes in tenant eviction. “Anyone who wants a pet can just get a doctor’s note, and then under ADA guidelines the landlord must accept the pet. There are Internet services which will issue a certificate if you merely pay their fee.”
Therapist James Guay said that he hasn’t been asked to provide therapy animal documentation during the three years he has been practicing in West Hollywood. However, he has done so for past patients with substance abuse problems and other conditions.
“In that context, it certainly seemed pretty legitimate,” he said.
Guay said there are several things that can support mental wellness—adequate sleep, social support, healthy diet—but there is at least anecdotal evidence that pets can help. For instance, a depressed person otherwise unmotivated to get out of bed might do so in order to feed or walk a dog.
“We all can benefit from taking care of cats, dogs, other animals and feeling their love,” Guary said. “It’s that unconditional love that we don’t get from human beings.”
Suni Cookson, director of Love on 4 Paws, believes that therapy animals are truly beneficial to those who need them. Love on 4 Paws takes volunteer handler/therapy dog teams to visit people in facilities such as hospitals and assisted care facilities. The dogs might calm someone with anxiety, perhaps even prompt an autistic child to speak for the first time. The effect’s aren’t always obvious immediately, but Cookson has heard from people years down the line about how big of a difference therapy dogs made in someone’s life.
However, Cookson said that some people abuse the system by falsely claiming to have service or therapy animals. For instance, she said, there are websites that sell service dog vests and certificates, “and they’ve never even seen your dog or anything … To me it’s sad because there is abuse and it is disappointing.”
For more information about landlord-tenant law regarding pets in West Hollywood, see the city’s Pets 101 presentation online.