Q&A: Tenant with Severe Cat Allergies

cat allergies can be a serious concern for some tenants.

My new tenant says she has severe allergic reactions to cats. The previous tenant had two cats, but they weren’t a problem then. My new tenant is insisting I need to do a cleanup, since she’s essentially disabled because of asthma and her allergies. Is this a requirement?

Allan, Santa Barbara, California

 

You probably need to get some professional cleaners in there, pronto. Pardon the pun, but with some people, pet allergies are nothing to sneeze at. Pet allergies are known contributors to chronic asthma. If her allergies are severe and cause asthma attacks or anaphylactic reactions, it could very well rise to the level of a disability, and under the Fair Housing Act, your tenant is probably entitled to reasonable accommodation under the law.

First, some background: Asthma is not just an inconvenience, and it’s not as simple as telling her to keep her inhaler with her in her own home. Asthma is a potentially lethal disease that was attributed to the deaths of 3,518 people in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Furthermore, while it’s rare, exposure to pet proteins (dander, saliva, urine, etc.) can cause a full-blown and potentially lethal anaphylactic reaction in severely allergic individuals. For them, it can be as lethal as allergic reactions to peanuts or bee stings.

Under the Fair Housing Act, an individual is considered disabled (and thus entitled to reasonable accommodation in housing) if a medical issue “has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” If the allergies inhibit going to work or school, or basic functions as breathing, it’s likely going to qualify under the FHA. That triggers an obligation for a reasonable accommodation on the part of the landlord. This isn’t just a theoretical opinion: In 2008, when Congress expanded the definition of a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, asthma was among the conditions specifically identified as qualifying under the new broader definition of disability.

Note that not every ordinary allergy is going to meet the FHA standard. If the worst reaction the tenant experiences is a case of the sniffles, it may not amount to a disability. The threshold distinction is generally whether the allergies force the tenant to reach for a Kleenex, or seek medical attention.

In some cases, reasonable accommodation may mean letting the tenant move into another similar unit. If this is not possible, you may have to take other measures.

Chances are, you’ll need to get some professional cleaners in the unit, and treat it like a mold infestation. While this is not a complicated procedure for pet dander (which is less stubborn than mold and fortunately doesn’t replicate like mold does), the equipment and skill needed is usually beyond the ability of most tenants and individual landlords, for that matter.

If the apartment was furnished, you might need to get rid of the old furniture that was exposed to cats in any case. You’ll probably want to remove the carpeting, if any, and get the HVAC ducts professionally cleaned. If the HVAC system connects multiple units, and there’s another cat living in one of the other units, you may have a more widespread problem. We’ve seen some instances where a landlord closes off one unit from a shared HVAC system, cleans the vents, and allowed the tenant to install his own air conditioning or heating unit. This may or may not be feasible in your area.

Do your tenants share washers and dryers? It may make sense to designate one or more shared washer-dryer combos as “pet free.” You may also allow the tenants to install their own washer and dryer in the dwelling, if there is space and available hookups. This could be at their own expense unless you plan on keeping the appliances after they move out. It’s unlikely paying for it yourself would be required as a “reasonable” accommodation, but granting an exception to usual rules usually qualifies as a “reasonable” accommodation.

Other possible measures include:

  • Upgrading to High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestance (HEPA) filters on HVAC units and any other filters you have installed.
  • Installing or providing an active air filter
  • Replacing drapes with blinds
  • Removing carpeting altogether
  • Renting or buying a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. Some excellent choices include the Electrolux UltraOne Deluxe Canister Vacuum EL7085ADXor the Miele Complete C3 Kona Canister Vacuum.
  • Springing for a professional carpet cleaner. Tell them the situation. The downside is that if the allergy and the dander issue is severe, this may not be enough.

 

“Reasonable” versus “unreasonable” accommodation

This can get tricky very fast, and is the subject of a lot of litigation. The law doesn’t require you to do anything “unreasonable” to accommodate a pet allergy, or anything else, for that matter. But what’s reasonable for the owners of a 200-apartment complex might not be reasonable for a small landlord with five rental units. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a reasonable accommodation is a “change, exception, or adjustment to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for a person with a disability to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling, including public and common-use spaces.”

Note: The FHA reasonable accommodation requirements do not apply to owner-occupied buildings that have four units or fewer. So if you live in a quad and rent out the other three, you aren’t obligated by this law, though it may make sense to release this tenant from her lease if you can’t work something out.

If you own an apartment building and you’ve already designated it as pet friendly, and you already have other pet owners living in the unit, there’s no obligation on your part to ban pets from the building altogether. That would not be a “reasonable” accommodation. And while the landlords have a legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodations to those with pet allergies, that obligation doesn’t extend to other tenants!

Moreover, landlords are not required to fundamentally change the nature of their operations in order to accommodate an individual with a disability. Changing an apartment building or condominium from a pet-friendly to a no-pets facility would be changing the fundamental nature of the housing development/apartment complex, and would take too long to accomplish to be useful in this case.

 

Beware of bad advice online

One non-starter: Taking it upon yourself to decide that pet allergies are not disabilities, or denying reasonable accommodations claiming that the tenant should have caught it upon the inspection. I’ve seen landlords give this advice to others on online bulletin boards, and it’s not recommended. Most of these landlords are not MDs, and even if they are, they have not examined their tenants. It is not within the landlord’s expertise to determine whether an allergy or any other condition rises to the level of a disability under the Fair Housing Act. You can, however, request verification of the disability and the necessary accommodations from the tenants’ physician.

In any case, be sure to go over your specific situation with an experienced attorney familiar with landlord-tenant law in your state.