This is because, under both Virginia and federal law, there’s little to no difference between an emotional support animal and a wheelchair ramp that helps you enter your building.
Instead, you should think of your animal as a reasonable accommodation for a specific, provable disability.
In this article, we’ll quickly cover the basics of how emotional support animals interact with Virginia’s housing laws.
We’ll also provide several additional links and resources that can help you understand the Commonwealth’s stance on this issue.
Emotional Support Animal Basics in Virginia
To simplify the entire issue into a single sentence:
Landlords must make reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities in order to provide these individuals with housing opportunities that are equal to those enjoyed by able-bodied individuals.
As a conceptual example, let’s say that you were hired for a retail job where you have to stand in front of a register for hours on end.
In this scenario, it may be a “reasonable” accommodation to ask your employer for a stool to sit on in the event that you have a disability that affects your ability to stand for long periods of time.
This stool would be “reasonable” because it’s not unnecessarily disruptive to the business as a whole, and allows the disabled individual to enjoy the same opportunity as an able-bodied individual (i.e. being employed).
Further, the stool itself would be an “accommodation” because the business would be slightly bending its own rules to help the disabled individual with their issue.
The same general principle applies to housing in Virginia (though housing accommodations follow slightly different rules and procedures).
Basically, landlords must make “reasonable accommodations” when they are requested by individuals with disabilities, provided that these accommodations allow for an equal enjoyment of the property.
Such an accommodation would normally be a small change to, or exemption from, the unit’s rules, standards, or procedures.
For example, a rental unit that normally bans pets could bend its rules to allow for a service or emotional support animal, provided that the animal (and the owner) meets all of the legal requirements for such an accommodation.
A Quick Glance at Virginia’s Fair Housing Laws
As noted by the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR), a housing provider must allow a disabled resident to keep an assistance animal if three conditions are met:
- The resident must meet the definition of “handicapped” as defined in the fair housing law;
- The housing provider must know about, or should have known about, the resident’s handicap (this requirement is usually met when the tenant notifies the housing provider of the handicap and asks for an accommodation);
- The accommodation is necessary to afford the disabled resident an equal opportunity to use and enjoy the dwelling.
Note, however, that this is an ordered list of conditions.
In Virginia, the housing provider must first establish that an individual meets the legal definition of disabled, and only then evaluate whether the reasonable accommodation (the presence of the animal) is necessary.
Proving the Necessity of an Emotional Support Animal
Generally, you can prove the necessity of your emotional support animal by presenting a letter from a certified medical professional that establishes a credible “nexus” (relationship) between the presence of the animal and your equal use and enjoyment of the property.
In this way, while some other rules may apply to the animal, the only necessary certification for any assistance animal is the owner’s own medical documentation.
For this reason, housing providers may require a resident to provide verification if the disability is not visible.
This is because they want to establish a “nexus” between your disability and your need for the animal.
Establishing a “Reasonable Accommodation”
Once the housing provider has established (1) that you meet the legal definition of a handicapped individual, and (2) that an “accommodation” is necessary for your equal enjoyment of the dwelling, they can evaluate whether or not the specific accommodation you suggested (your animal) is “reasonable.”
This means that you must draw a direct relationship between the presence of your animal and your disability.
Further, you must prove that the presence of the animal is “necessary” to your equal enjoyment of the unit.
In this fashion, housing providers can deny requests for reasonable accommodation if there is no disability-related need for the accommodation.
Note, however, that this is very much a “grey” area of the law, and what is “necessary and reasonable” may change on a case-by-case basis.
For this reason, it’s often wise to work with your housing provider to come to find some middle ground on the issue before you jump straight to litigation over a rejected application.
Support Animal Certifications: A Note on Semantics
As noted quite clearly by the Virginia DPOR:
“The ability to receive a reasonable accommodation is not based on one’s ownership of an assistance animal, but rests instead on the existence of a disability as defined by the fair housing law.”
Websites and organizations that offer “certificates” for support animals are generally for-profit entities, and their products are wholly unnecessary for housing accommodations under Virginia law.
Remember, there is no such thing as a centralized assistance animal “register” because the presence of such a register goes against the whole point of emotional support animals in the first place.
Namely, support animals are articles of property that a housing entity is “accommodating” your possession and use of by changing or modifying existing policies regarding the possession of such animals.
Housing entities can not (and should not) require special training or certifications for assistance animals, because the point of the law in the first place is to accommodate a disability, not your ownership of a pet.
As noted by the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation:
“Fair Housing Law requires housing providers to accommodate a person with a disability by changing or modifying a rule, policy, or practice when doing so is necessary to give the disabled person equal opportunity to use and enjoy his or her unit.”
In regards to emotional support animals, the “rule” that individuals often challenge is a restriction or fine on having a pet in the unit.
In such situations, it may be a “reasonable accommodation” for the housing provider to waive this rule or fine, provided that the individual can show a credible nexus between a disability, the animal, and an equal enjoyment of the unit.
If your housing provider rejects your application for such a reasonable accommodation, not all hope is lost.
You may just have to prove a more accurate nexus between the presence of the animal and your equal enjoyment of the unit.
Regardless, it’s important that you review Virginia’s rules and procedures on the matter (linked below), and, in more serious cases where you experience damages as a result of the rejection, it may be beneficial to speak with an attorney about your case.