BOULDER – House Bill 1426 passed by unanimous vote on April 16, 2016, filling a critical void for landlords who provide housing for disabled tenants. Skepticism about the presence of a service animal has been very long-standing, with good reason. Over the years, there’s no way to say exactly how many renters have manipulated the protections provided to our nation’s disabled citizens. Below is an overview of what you need to know about service and companion animals living in your rental property, and what this new HB16-1426 means for you.

Know the difference between a service animal and a companion animal
Colorado is not the first state to enact a law of this kind. Various areas of the United States have their own laws addressing which animals and circumstances qualify, but the underlying principle is the same. Service animals are not viewed in the same way that average pets are perceived (neither in a social capacity nor legal). These animals have been trained for and charged with a very specific job, and they have been deemed a necessary component in the owner’s way of life.

As an aside, it also helps to know that these service pets carry a cost that is commensurate with their role in their humans’ lives. The price for one of these animals is often several thousand dollars; you can rest assured that (in almost all cases) the one living on your property is being properly handled and contained.

The boundaries often become a bit unclear where companion animals are concerned. Sometimes called “therapy pets” or “comfort animals”, these pets serve their humans in an entirely different capacity. They do not require any specific training, and they do not perform the same physical tasks that are carried out by service animals. However, they do work as official Emotional Support Animals (ESA). The only legal requirement is that a nexus exists between the human’s emotional condition and the animal’s ability to alleviate the symptoms. On the surface, this does sound like something that would be easy to manipulate. However, there are certain rights and protections that have been put into place to safeguard the best interests of everyone involved.

Your rights and protections
As an investor, you have the right and desire to protect your property. It’s safe to assume that the average pet is able to cause a kind of damage that your human tenants would never be able to achieve on their own. So, of course, you want to know what you’re dealing with. Your rights start with asking for medical certification of the condition at hand, as well as written confirmation of the healthcare provider’s opinions about whether or not the animal is necessary for the disabled person’s personal well-being. You may also ask for copies of the animal’s health records to ensure that he or she is under adequate care and up-to-date on vaccinations.

Unfortunately, you should know that the ADA does not permit landlords to charge any additional pet fees or deposits for service animals. In order to protect yourself from any potential damage, you’ll need to have a very firm and thorough contract in place outlining responsibility for damages.

Your tenant’s rights and protections
The right of disabled individuals to use a service animal or emotional support animal is protected by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”). Your right to privacy is also something to keep in mind. While your landlord has every right to ask for information regarding your relationship with the animal, he or she is not entitled to any of your personal health information. That is, it’s fine to ask for certification of your need for the animal, but not for documentation of your diagnosis.

As mentioned above, your landlord must not ask for any additional deposits, and any person who feels that he or she has been discriminated against in any way should file a claim.

What House Bill 1426 means for you
This bill addresses the need for a punitive approach to handling pet owners who are less than honest about their animal’s role as a service pet. It is now a crime for someone to intentionally misrepresent an owned animal as a service animal, service-animal-in-training, or emotional support (assistance) animal in order to obtain any of the rights afforded to individuals with service animals under Colorado disabilities law. Moreover, the bill calls for a standard set of forms to be used by landlords and healthcare providers in the very near future.

There will always be intentional lawbreakers in our society, but this bill should certainly deter the vast majority of them. As a landlord myself, I feel that this is a definite step in the right direction. If you’re a current or potential property investor who would like to learn more about my personal experiences with pets in rental properties, contact me at 303.443.6292 or via e-mail at [email protected].

Michaela Phillips is the Vice President of Mortgage Lending at Guaranteed Rate, Inc., the 8th largest retail mortgage company in the country. Since entering the mortgage industry in 1994, she’s consistently been a top producer. Being a VP at Guaranteed Rate offers many advantages to her and her clients including unparalleled customer service, efficiency, and most importantly competitive rates.NMLS: 312874.

By Michaela Phillips, Guaranteed Rate, Inc.