Q: I’m having a difficult time finding a place to rent and suspect it’s because I’m handicapped. What are my rights?

A: First, it’s important to know what federal law defines as handicapped. According to Title 24 of the Code of Federal Regulations, a handicap is “any physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities, a record of having such impairment or being regarded as having such impairment”.

As for rights, federal law enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 “in order to create a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities and to provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” The U.S. Department of Justice provides free ADA materials. Printed materials may be ordered by calling the ADA Information Line (1-800-514-0301 (Voice) or 1-800-514-0383 (TDD) or by visiting their Web site at www.ada.gov.

As for not knowing your rights, you’re not alone. According to research by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “only slightly more than half of Americans are aware that it is illegal for landlords to refuse to make reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities or to permit reasonable modification to a housing unit.” A full survey on the subject of housing discrimination due to a disability was completed in June of 2005, and is available by link via www.hud.gov.

Several agencies from the local to the federal level can handle discrimination complaints. Some states have more detailed definitions as well.

The attorney general’s office in most states can provide more information. You may also want to consult an attorney to establish your rights.

Q: My doctor suggests I get a dog, but my landlord insists the building does not allow pets. Don’t I have the right to get a dog if it’s a medical necessity?

A: Depends on the specifics of the pet request. Federal law steps in and defines the term “service animal” in an effort to curb any misunderstandings. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (www.usdoj.gov), the Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service animal “as any guide dog, signal dog or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.”

Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes, as do their tasks. With more sophisticated training available, service dogs aren’t just the classic seeing-eye dog anymore. Some assist in alerting the hearing impaired to sounds, while others may provide balance for people with mobility impairments. Pulling wheelchairs and carrying and picking up items for a disabled person are also in use.

Assuming your animal is indeed a service animal, then it is not considered a pet, but rather a medical necessity or assistant device. Consequently, the “no-pets” policy does not apply when it comes to service animals living in rental units. If you’re not sure if your pet qualifies as a service animal, a number of states have programs to certify service animals.

In accordance with ADA rules, allowing a service animal is considered a “reasonable accommodation,” even in a “no-pets-allowed” building. Even if pet owners are charged a pet deposit fee in some rentals, service animals are exempt from such fees, deposits or surcharges.

Once the definitions have been established and your service animal has settled in, keep in mind that tenants have a responsibility as well. Taking proper care of the pet, including picking up waste and disposing of trash properly is the pet owner’s responsibility. Damage caused by a service animal can also be assessed and charged to the pet owner, assuming the same damage cost is on a par with normal pet-damage charges.

The pet must also behave like a good neighbor and not disturb others. If an animal barks, bites or causes problems, there is a chance the animal could be removed, especially if the animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others.

According to some sources, therapy animals, which are animals ordered by doctors to help in certain conditions, are not the same as service animals. Current case law varies in deciding whether these types of animals fall under the ADA definitions. I would suggest contacting an attorney or local enforcement agency if your bona fide request for a service animal is ignored.

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