Has Fair Housing Gone to the Dogs?

By MNR News posted 04-18-2022 15:18

A rental manager turned away a disabled applicant who relied on a pair of pit bulls for emotional support. Was he within his rights or violating the FHA?
In 2018, Donald Bradach was laboring on a sewage-maintenance team when a heavy pipe struck his head, causing a traumatic brain injury. Afflicted with migraines, visual impairment, and unable to balance properly, he could no longer work. Depressed and anxious, Donald stopped socializing or even going outside. Worse, he developed diabetes that made him lose consciousness if his blood sugar dipped too low. His wife worked during the day and could not care for Donald. So, the couple relied on two unlikely caregivers: Coco and Domo, their pit bull terriers.

Intuitive and intelligent, the dogs helped Donald stay balanced when he walked around the rundown house they rented in Madison Lake. Sensing when he became sluggish due to low blood sugar, they prodded Donald, reminding him to check and maintain his insulin levels. Most of all, they gave him companionship that eased his mental health issues. When the couple decided to move to a healthier place to raise their soon-to-be-born child, finding a rental that accepted emotional-support animals was a top priority.

They discovered what seemed to be a perfect fit at Pleasant Hill Manor, a Madison-Lake mobile-home park. After exchanging emails with Travis Hammett, the park’s rental manager, Donald and his wife learned that pets were allowed. Right after touring the home with the rental manager, the couple filled out a rental application. Just to be sure, they asked Travis to confirm that their emotional support animals could live there. They specified that the dogs were pit bulls, and he assured the couple there was no problem with their pets.

Pit bulls need not apply

However, Travis’s parents—Scott and Lisa—who owned Pleasant Hill Manor, were alarmed when they learned about the dogs’ breed and told him he should not rent the mobile home to Donald and his wife. So, Travis retracted the offer, telling the prospective tenants the deal was off because pit bulls were not welcome on the property. Soon after, the home was rented to a couple that did not own pets.

Donald and his wife filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) claiming Donald Bradach had been discriminated against because of his disability. In response, the rental manager and the mobile park’s owners said that although they permit pets on the property, they stipulate that “potentially dangerous or unmanageable” pets are not allowed. They added that while they accept specially trained service dogs of any breed, Donald’s emotional support animals were not certified as such and did not fit those criteria.

HUD finds that the Hammetts violated the Fair Housing Act

An investigation by the secretary of HUD weighed in favor of Donald Bradach and his wife, and found that Travis Hammett and his parents, Scott and Lisa Hammett, violated numerous sections of the Fair Housing Act (FHA). Specifically, they:

  • Made housing unavailable to a person with a disability because his emotional support animals were pit bulls (FHA - 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(1))
  • Subjected Bradach and his wife to different and less favorable terms and conditions because the dogs were not service dogs (FHA - 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(2))
  • Failed to modify their policy so Bradach could have the dogs he relied on for emotional and cognitive support. By doing so, they denied him an equal opportunity to inhabit the dwelling. (FHA - 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3))

The HUD secretary concluded that the Hammetts had caused Donald Bradach and his wife injuries by deliberately disregarding their rights as defined in FHA - 42 U.S.C. § 3602(i). They were ordered to pay monetary damages to Bradach and his wife and implement new policies and procedures that ensured no future applicants or residents of the mobile park were discriminated against because of a disability.

The law favors tenants with emotional support animals

Other cases in Minnesota involving tenants with emotional support animals have had similar outcomes. In three recent disputes, the Department of Justice (DOJ) ruled in favor of plaintiffs fighting for the right to live with emotional support animals in their rental units. In each instance, property owners threatened to evict the renters if they did not comply with their no-pets policies. The court found the property owners in violation of the Fair Housing Act and ordered them to pay the renters monetary settlements and let them live with their animals.

Are Pit Bulls Dangerous Animals?

Over the years, pit bulls and other dog breeds have received a lot of bad press. Stories about vicious bites and attacks grab headlines, and understandably raise public concern. In fact, numerous communities across the country have outright banned pit bulls. And some states, like Ohio, place difficult restrictions on pit-bull owners that find housing, and obtain homeowners or renters’ liability insurance. But is this justified? Is any particular dog breed truly dangerous?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there is no reliable data linking pit bulls with a higher rate of bites and fatal dog attacks than other breeds of dog. This includes maligned breeds like mastiffs, dalmatians, German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, and others. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports that aggression in dogs is largely determined by early experiences, socialization and training, individual heredity (as opposed to breed), and sex and reproductive status. Dogs of any breed raised to be aggressive are more likely to bite. Also, un-neutered males are more than twice as likely to bite as neutered males.

On its website, the ASPCA states its official position on laws regulating specific breeds like pit bulls:

The ASPCA is not aware of credible evidence that breed-specific laws make communities safer either for people or other companion animals. There is, however, evidence that such laws unfairly target responsible pet guardians and their well-socialized dogs, are inhumane, and impede community safety and humane sheltering efforts.

The Fair Housing Act at a Glance

Passed in 1968, the Fair Housing Act (FHA) made it illegal to discriminate in the sales, rental, and financing of housing based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.

In Minnesota, Realtors® are also bound by the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), and Article 10 of National Association of Realtors® Code of Ethics.

Learn more about Realtors®’ obligations under the FHA by reading, Is Fair Housing Fair Terrain for Liability?

Editor’s note: Check out our digital magazine to read this feature story in The Minnesota Realtor® Magazine.