Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson took a shot across the bow at emotional support animals, reaffirming a 2013 agency mandate banning the proliferation of service animals and the questionable online certificates deployed to register them.


Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson on Wednesday took a shot across the bow at emotional support animals, reaffirming a partial ban on certain unconventional pets — and the questionable online certificates used to register them — across 1.3 million public housing units nationwide.

“I think we can all very much appreciate seeing-eye dogs, and as a neurosurgeon I had patients with seizure dogs — those are very useful,” Carson told forum moderator Vince Malta, a first vice president of the National Association of Realtors, during the organization’s midyear legislative conference at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. “We are making sure that landlords understand not only their rights but their responsibilities towards people that have disabilities.”

“Really it needs to be a legit healthcare provider that can document that there’s a true disability and that a support animal is needed,” Carson added.

Under a 2011 Department of Justice amendment, the definition of “service animal” is limited exclusively to dogs while excluding “emotional support animals.” In recent years, however, pet owners have used dubious online certificates to register miniature horses, pigs and 13-inch turtles as emotional support animals to accompany them on airplanes and in their homes.

“This definition, however, does not limit housing providers’ obligations to make reasonable accommodations for assistance animals under the FHAct or Section 504,” according to a HUD memo disseminated in 2013. “Persons with disabilities may request a reasonable accommodation for any assistance animal, including an emotional support animal.”

The catty words inside the Marriott Ballroom drew applause from thousands of National Association Realtors members in town for the organization’s annual midyear legislative conference in Washington, D.C., despite a 20-minute question-and-answer forum that included no new policy announcements.

The morning conversation — to which Carson was about 15 minutes late, blaming D.C. traffic — touched on millennial homeownership, sexual harassment, outdated credit score models and the HUD secretary’s controversial plan to create escrow accounts for residents in an effort to incentiveize home repairs, which critics denounced last year.

The address to NAR members came one day after New York became the first state in the nation to join in a lawsuit against HUD over its delayed implementation of an Obama-era anti-segregation policy.

Carson did not mention the lawsuit or the plan to delay the policy.

Can escrow accounts help individuals on federal assistance buy a home?

Carson drew criticism when he first proposed the idea of creating escrow accounts for individuals on public assistance to do their own repairs, but he doubled down on Wednesday.

“If the door is always broken, the light bulbs need to be changed, you’re always calling the plumber, [than] your escrow is not going to grow very much,” Carson said, repeating some of the language that prompted some critics last year to call the policy insensitive. “But if you learn to lift the lid and say, ‘I can fix that,’ you start thinking like a homeowner.”

The program would take part of the monthly subsidy given to renters and put it in an escrow account associated with the unit. All of the routine maintenance associated with the unit would come out of that account, which would continue to grow, Carson said. If the individual leaves public assistance, the money would eventually be available for a down payment.

When Carson first floated the idea in December, he was sharply criticized.

“The old roofs and bricks are falling apart, not because tenants are dependent, but because the federal government has been derelict in not paying for the roofs and bricks,” New York City Councilman Richie Torres said, according to WNYC.

It’s not clear from Carson’s early stage idea how many years a tenant would have to wait to collect on the escrow account or where the money in the account would be coming from.

Addressing homeownership for millennials

On Wednesday, Carson said that a plan to create a federal program that combines mortgage payments with student loan debt, first floated last summer, is still in the very early stages of development at HUD. Under the preliminary plan, the program would involve one low-interest payment to help spark homeownership among millennials.

“Those kind of innovative things can make a big difference,” Carson said.

Carson first introduced the program last summer, according to HousingWire but provided scant details when he brought the subject up again today.

Working to address sexual harassment and discrimination

In April, HUD announced a joint campaign with the United States Justice Department to address sexual harassment in housing through the creation of an interagency task force, “outreach toolkit” and a public awareness campaign. On Wednesday, details were sparse.

“There has been a disturbing trend with more and more instances of sexual harassment being reported across the nation,” Carson told NAR members. “It’s very important for us to educate people on what sexual harassment is.”

“It’s also important for people to understand their options on what their options are so they don’t feel like they’re trapped,” he added. “In today’s society, no one should ever have to make the choice of a roof over their head or whether they should tolerate harassment.”

Looking at outdated credit score models

You could be a perfect renter with a great track record of paying rent on time, but if you don’t have credit history, it may still be very difficult to secure a mortgage and buy a home, or even find a new apartment to rent.

Carson said HUD and the Federal Housing Administration are looking at different options to evaluate credit worthiness, but warned that they can’t be too lax with requirements.

“It still has to be rigorous enough,” he said. “If you get people into homes that they can’t afford, you’re really not doing them a favor.”

Email Patrick Kearns

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