Housing Discrimination in Massachusetts: A “Ruff” Lesson On This Important Area of Law
A recent case from Western Massachusetts of a landlord refusing to rent to tenants with service animals is an example of the perils of ignoring state and federal housing discrimination laws, and a reason why landlords need to be extremely careful when advertising rental units. Discriminating against tenants with service animals will put landlords in the doghouse (pun intended!).
Housing Discrimination 101
Both state and federal law prohibits discrimination in housing. This includes, but is not limited to: race, national origin, sex, and disability status. The list of these protected categories is long, and it is best to check on this by reviewing the state and federal government websites on fair housing laws, which do a good job of explaining the basics about housing discrimination. Simply put, a landlord is not allowed to deny a tenant housing based on one of these protected categories.
In this case, the landlord advertised that it would not accept pets or service animals. While a restriction on pets is generally okay (and common) for rental units, the latter is a big no-no: a blanket restriction on service animals is discrimination on the basis of disability.
Although the landlord in this story was likely fine in not allowing tenants with pets, it was not lawful to outright prohibit service animals. If a tenant with a service animal wished to apply for a rental unit, the landlord would have to consider them for a reasonable accommodation. If the landlord fails to properly consider this request, this is housing discrimination.
The increased use of service dogs promises that this will be an issue for years to come. While every situation is different, I would imagine that most landlords will have difficulty making a case that a service dog is not a reasonable accommodation. Landlords who fail to take this issue seriously set themselves up for severe damages and penalties.
In this case, the penalty against the landlord was likely not as bad as it could have been. It is not unheard of for housing discrimination cases in Massachusetts to result in steep damages for landlords.
If you need assistance with a housing discrimination matter, contact me for a consultation.