A Federal Civil Rights Office Wants To Limit Access To Emotional Support Animals That Can Help With Depression

Originally published in The Intercept on March 18, 2019.
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The Department of Housing and Urban Development is moving forward with a proposal that could limit people’s right to live with so-called emotional-support animals under the Fair Housing Act.

As the landmark civil rights law that protects against discrimination in housing currently stands, individuals can keep emotional-support animals in their homes free of cost, provided that a trained professional certifies that the animal could help them cope with mental or physical issues. (A separate federal law, the Air Carrier Access Act, permits passengers to travel with their emotional-support animals on planes.) These laws have grown increasingly controversial in recent years, as a result of news reports about healthy pet owners exploiting legal accommodations to bring their pets on flights and into restaurants. Many landlords have also grown skeptical of those requesting to bypass “no pets” policies, suspecting that fraud is afoot.

As a result, housing industry groups have been lobbying HUD to crack down on suspected animal abuse, and they complain that the existing set of rules is too difficult for the average housing owner to understand. Civil rights groups meanwhile have pushed back, conscious that many landlords would love to keep their buildings animal-free however possible and recognize that many individuals struggle as is to have their right to an emotional-support animal taken seriously.

The National Apartment Association is “strongly supportive of disabled persons’ right to reasonable accommodations,” said Nicole Upano, the group’s director of public policy, but they have been asking HUD for clarity on how to handle these requests. “We would like for the average on-site staff person to be able to navigate this issue, but right now you really have to have a law degree,” she said.

As The Intercept reported last year, Anna Maria Farías, the federal assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at HUD, decided to prioritize cracking down on alleged emotional-support animal fraud. For at least the last year, HUD has been working on new administrative guidance on emotional-support animals, which would essentially be a document laying out the agency’s expectations for how the law should be interpreted and applied. Federal guidance does not carry the same legal power as laws or regulations, but, in this case, it would send a strong signal to landlords and tenants about how the federal government intends to enforce the Fair Housing Act.

“The guidance is probably going to make it a little harder for someone who wants to verify the need for animals, and they will probably cut back a little on some non-domesticated exotic animals,” said Ken Walden, a disability rights attorney with the Chicago-based Access Living.

Brian Sullivan, a spokesperson for HUD, said that the agency is currently circulating the proposed guidance among other relevant agencies, like the Department of Justice, for review. The next step would be to submit it to the Office of Management and Budget for approval. This would be at least the second time the Trump administration’s HUD tries to get guidance on emotional-support animals through OMB. In November, HUD submitted a different version of the guidance to OMB, titled, “Applying the Fair Housing Act to Decide Whether a Person’s Request to Have an Animal as a Reasonable Accommodation Should Be Granted,” but quietly withdrew it in late February. Sullivan said the guidance was removed to do more interagency vetting.

Unlike service dogs, which are permitted under the Americans With Disabilities Act and can be taken to most public places, emotional-support animals under the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act do not have to be trained to perform specific tasks and can only be kept at home or brought on planes. They are considered a legitimate coping method for physical and mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.

Civil rights advocates say that cracking down too harshly on phony service animals can further stigmatize mental health issues, while also reinforcing the idea that medication is the only appropriate response to mental illness. As of 2019, 24 states already have laws on the books criminalizing the misrepresentation of pets as service animals, and advocates worry that more restrictions from the federal government could deter individuals who have a legitimate need from seeking assistance.

WHEN CIVIL RIGHTS advocates first learned that HUD was considering this measure last year, they requested meetings with agency officials and their requests were ignored, even though HUD was meeting with representatives from the housing industry about the issue. Last spring, however, they finally got through. In May, Walden and his Access Living colleagues Marca Bristo and Mary Rosenberg held a phone call with HUD representatives to spell out their concerns. They followed up with a detailed letter to HUD, laying out a number of fears, including that HUD might impose unfair restrictions against certain breeds of animals, that HUD might make it too difficult for tenants to verify that they have a legitimate need for an animal, and that HUD might treat certain protected classes differently, such as veterans.

Following that letter, a coalition of national disability rights groups organized to present a more unified front to HUD on these issues. The groups also requested to see the draft guidance HUD was working on, but were denied. The new guidance is expected to replace an older guidance HUD issued in 2013, which concerned what housing providers’ legal obligations are in connection to the Americans With Disabilities Act. More than halfof all fair housing complaints concern individuals with disabilities, and nearly half of those involve animal-related issues.

In October, HUD convened a meeting in Washington, D.C., between civil rights advocates and Farías, the assistant HUD secretary; Timothy Petty from HUD’s Office of General Counsel; Lynn Grosso, the director of enforcement for the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity; Ashley Ludlow, the senior HUD adviser for congressional relations; and members of Democratic Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s staff. “Senator Duckworth from our state was instrumental in setting the meeting up,” said Walden of Access Living.

Representatives from the National Association of the Deaf, the Seeing Eye, the National Fair Housing Alliance, the National Council on Independent Living, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Rise Phoenix Rise, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the National Association of Mental Illness, the American Council of the Blind, and the National Council on Disability were in attendance.

The conversation left the advocates feeling somewhat optimistic. “I’m hopeful that it’s not going to be as bad as we feared last year, but it’s hard to know without seeing the actual guidance,” said Walden.

One area of particular concern for advocates is whether HUD will further restrict the categories of people and groups that can validate an individual’s need for an emotional-support animal. Current guidance requires the verification of “a doctor or other medical professional, a peer support group, a non-medical service agency, or a reliable third party who is in a position to know about the individual’s disability.” Advocates worry that under pressure from housing industry groups, HUD may limit this to only a doctor or medical provider, which they say would be too restrictive, especially for low-income people. Advocates have stressed to HUD that other providers who aren’t in the medical field, like social workers, case managers, counselors, and even dog trainers can reliably testify to an individual’s need.

Industry groups have been pushing HUD on this very issue. Upano, of the National Apartment Association, told The Intercept that her members believe there should be a “legitimate treatment relationship” between a provider and the person requesting verification of need. Upano, of the National Apartment Association, told The Intercept that her members believe there should be a “legitimate treatment relationship” between a provider and the person requesting verification of need. Her group’s members believe that the best way to cut down on abuse is “to require that there be a therapeutic relationship between the person who is writing the note and the person requesting the reasonable accommodation,” she said. This wouldn’t necessarily need to be a medical doctor or psychologist, she added.

Civil rights advocates had concerns at one point that HUD would treat veterans who require emotional-support animals differently than other individuals with disabilities, but they said HUD officials assured them that this would likely not be the case. “We had heard there may be different standards for veterans with PTSD than other protected classes, and it would be easier for them to get verification, but we’re pretty confident at this point that they will have the same standards,” said Rosenberg.

Another takeaway from their October meeting was that HUD will likely not differentiate between types of housing or animal breeds. “We do not expect HUD to issue separate rules for condos versus apartments versus dorms,” said Rosenberg, who added that they also expect there will be consistency applied toward animal breeds.

ADVOCATES DO EXPECT HUD to take steps to address the online cottage industry that has cropped up for the sale of cheap documentation to pet owners who then falsely identify pets as service dogs or emotional-support animals — a move that, while justified, also holds risks. Critics of these websites rightly note that this type of documentation can be useful for someone who is living in an apartment building with no disability, but wants to skirt their building’s no-pet policy or its monthly or annual pet fee. Tenants and plane passengers can’t be charged for their emotional-support animals, though regular pets can incur a fee. Cultural fears abound of individuals taking advantage of these sites. One New Yorker article from 2014 identified that the “National Service Animal Registry,” which sells certificates and badges for helper animals, signed up 11,000 emotional-support animals in 2013, up from 2,400 in 2011.

While disability advocates agree that using phony documents to bypass pet rules and faking a disability is wrong, they also caution that there is no concrete evidence of widespread fraud. Still, this is a talking point that industry groups use. “By our count, there are 20 websites that spread misinformation about who should really qualify for an emotional-support animal, and they’re also providing access to a mental health professional and it’s not clear they’ve been licensed anywhere or from where they’re providing treatment to that patient,” said Upano, who noted that sometimes the letters come with a money-back guarantee.

Morgan Williams, general counsel of the National Fair Housing Alliance, cautioned in an interview last year that not everyone who seeks out online documents lacks a legitimate need or even knows that they’re wrong to use.

“Just because someone uses one of these websites doesn’t mean they don’t have a disability,” Williams told The Intercept. “They may have no concept that they’re using a website that other people might deem problematic.”

Walden said he and other advocates have tried to stress to HUD that while there may be a cottage industry of pay-for-play licensing, at the same time, technology has advanced and many people truly do have online and remote relationships with medical providers, especially in rural areas. Outlawing all online verification, they warn, would go too far.

Upano said her organization would not argue with the perspective backed by the American Psychiatric Association that telemedicine is a low-cost, affordable option for people who need mental health services. Still, she said, housing groups would like clearer guidelines on how to verify the documentation they’re presented with.

“We understand this is a sensitive issue; we understand the housing provider shouldn’t be asking any questions about diagnosis, medical records, but being able to ask the person if they did in fact write the note, and getting that very basic information, is what we heard from our members is the best deterrent to parse out legitimate and illegitimate requests,” she said.

Upano acknowledged that there can be gray areas, in which a doctor will say someone doesn’t need an animal, but they could benefit from having one. While Farías’s team looks at this issue, the federal housing agency has continued to go after landlords who deny tenants their legal accommodations. That’s where HUD’s energy should be focused, advocates say, even if they debate whether the agency has been aggressive enough.

If HUD publishes a guidance that advocates think goes too far, Rosenberg says there are a number of ways to challenge that.

“Depending on what the guidance says, we could look and say, well, this should have gone through rulemaking,” said Rosenberg. “Or we can see if what the guidance says conflicts with what the actual Fair Housing Act and associated regulations say, which hold more weight.”

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The Trump Administration Is Making It Easier to Evade Housing Desegregation Law, Triggering Civil Rights Lawsuit

Originally published in The Intercept on May 8, 2018.
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The Trump administration has illegally suspended a rule that requires local governments to show they’re working to reduce housing segregation, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its secretary, Ben Carson.

HUD announced in early January that it would delay enforcing the rule. Civil rights advocates say the delay is an effective end to federal fair housing oversight over billions of dollars to be doled out to local governments for at least the next six years. They have also accused HUD of reducing the amount of support it offers local communities in implementing the desegregation rule, effectively sabotaging its success.

“Decades of experience have shown that, left to their own devices, local jurisdictions will simply pocket federal funds and do little to further fair housing objectives,” reads the complaint, which was filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; the American Civil Liberties Union; the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Public Citizen; the Poverty & Race Research Action Council; and the law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax.

The rule in question is called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, or AFFH, and was finalized in 2015. It was designed to more effectively implement the integration mandates of the Fair Housing Act, a landmark civil rights statute passed a half-century ago to eradicate discrimination and segregation in housing. While jurisdictions that receive federal HUD funds have long had to certify that they are indeed working to reduce government-sponsored segregation, for decades HUD did little to ensure real steps were actually being taken.

In the complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the lawyers credit the AFFH rule with spurring commitments by local governments over the last two years to provide more help for African-Americans facing eviction from their homes, to revamp zoning laws to be more inclusive of people with disabilities, and to build more low-income housing in affluent areas.

HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan declined to comment on the suit, citing pending litigation. He instead referred to his agency’s statement released in January, which says that HUD has “extended the deadline” for local governments to comply with the AFFH rule “while HUD invests substantial human and technical resources toward improving” the tool used for rule compliance. “HUD stands by the Fair Housing Act’s requirement to affirmatively furthering fair housing, but we must make certain that the tools we provide to our grantees work in the real world,” the statement said.

AFFH was born out of a problem that was identified at least a decade ago.

In 2008, the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity reported that the government’s existing system for ensuring fair housing compliance “has failed.” The commission, co-chaired by two former HUD secretaries, noted that the federal housing agency requires “no evidence that anything is actually being done as a condition of funding,” and does not punish jurisdictions found to be directly involved in discrimination or failing to affirmatively further fair housing.

One year later, HUD convened a listening conference with over 600 participants from across the country to discuss compliance with federal fair housing mandates. John Trasviña, who was then HUD’s assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, testified before Congress later that “fair housing and civil rights groups, mayors, counties, and states all voiced their desire for HUD to amend its regulations to provide more concrete, specific information about how to develop a meaningful plan for affirmatively furthering fair housing.”

In 2010, the Government Accountability Office released a comprehensive report outlining the failures of local jurisdictions to comply with federal fair housing mandates, and the failures of HUD to promote meaningful oversight and enforcement over those obligations.

Over the next five years, key stakeholders worked closely with HUD to develop the newly revised AFFH rule, which not only gave communities more tools to carry out their fair housing obligations, but also strengthened HUD’s enforcement mechanisms for  oversight. In other words, the fair housing mandates finally had some teeth.

Civil rights advocates have long worried that the Trump administration might take aim at this hard-fought rule. Prior to Ben Carson’s appointment as HUD secretary, he had penned an op-ed likening the AFFH rule to other “failed socialist experiments.” Once he was confirmed, Carson told the Washington Examiner that he “believe[s] in fair housing,” but not in “extra manipulation and cost,” and so his agency will need to “reinterpret” the rule.

In suspending the AFFH rule, advocates allege HUD has violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the federal law that governs how federal agencies propose and implement regulation. The Trump administration has been repeatedly accused of violating the APA, issuing new directives and mandates, and rescinding old ones, without going through the established channels of rule-making.

This is the second major civil rights lawsuit aimed at HUD in the last year on the grounds of violating the Administrative Procedures Act. As The Intercept reported at the time, civil rights attorneys sued HUD and Ben Carson in October, for suspending a rule that would have assisted low-income voucher holders to move into more affluent communities. The attorneys succeeded in their legal challenge in late December, and the rule is now back in effect.

Sasha Samberg-Champion, a Relman, Dane & Colfax attorney who was involved in the former case and is also litigating this one, told The Intercept that their earlier experience in court “suggests to us that the judges in the District Court for the District of Columbia are well acquainted by now with lawless actions” of HUD and other Trump administration agencies.

The Fight for the Suburbs

Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of The New Republic.
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Due in no small part to his praise for white supremacists, his calls to deport immigrants, and his push to ban Muslims, Donald Trump has spurred Americans to protect racial minorities and work toward a more just society. That fight is playing out not just in sanctuary cities like New Haven and Los Angeles, or in the streets of Charlottesville. It is also being waged in Washington, at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

One of HUD’s central responsibilities is to implement the Fair Housing Act, the landmark anti-discrimination law that turns 50 years old in 2018. While efforts to desegregate inner cities continue at a frustratingly slow pace, fair housing advocates did win significant victories during the Obama years. In 2015, HUD issued a rule that provided local governments with new data tools to identify segregated living patterns and meet their legal obligations to promote integration. “These actions won’t make every community perfect,” Barack Obama said at the time. “But they will help make our communities stronger and more vibrant.” A year later, the administration issued another regulation to help families move out of poor, segregated neighborhoods—in part by increasing the purchasing power of their housing vouchers.

But Trump’s administration threatens to undercut these gains. HUD Secretary Ben Carson has criticized the Obama-era rules as “mandated social engineering” and promised his agency would “reinterpret” them. Over the summer, the department announced it would be suspending the rule to help poor families relocate to more affluent neighborhoods, prompting the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other civil rights groups to file a lawsuit in response.

But the struggle for fair housing is not simply a series of legal fights over regulations and subsidy formulas. It involves much larger battles—ones that take aim at Americans’ basic living patterns and the country’s history of government-sponsored segregation. And as the racial makeup of our cities and suburbs continues to shift, this conflict could profoundly impact U.S. electoral politics. Indeed, civil rights advocates maintain, a successful push for fair housing could transform not only the demographics of our country but even its political future.

The Fair Housing Act was born out of racial violence. Following the urban riots that exploded across the country in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson established the Kerner Commission to investigate the unrest. In February 1968, the commission pointed to insidious racial segregation as the cause, having created “two societies, one white, one black.” That month, Democratic Senator Walter Mondale and Republican Senator Edward Brooke—the only African American in the Senate—introduced the Fair Housing Act. The law would help create “truly integrated and balanced living patterns,” Mondale said.

Critics argued that making it easier for black families to move into white neighborhoods would trample their property rights and constitute “discrimination in reverse.” Still, as racial strife grew more pronounced, and as Martin Luther King Jr. traveled the country calling for an elimination of the nation’s slums, pressure to address segregated housing continued to mount.

King’s assassination on April 4, 1968 finally pushed fair housing through an otherwise recalcitrant Congress. The day after King’s death, Mondale took to the Senate floor and implored his colleagues to uphold King’s legacy by immediately passing the bill. Johnson signed the legislation into law six days later.

The Fair Housing Act has grown stronger over the years. Its protections now cover seven classes: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and families with children. In 1988, Congress also beefed up the law’s enforcement mechanisms and increased the penalties associated with violating it.

Yet even with these gains, many urban areas still exhibit apartheid levels of segregation. In 2015, Mondale called integration the “unfinished business” of his fair housing law. “When high-income black families cannot qualify for a prime loan and are steered away from white suburbs, the goals of the Fair Housing Act are not fulfilled,” he said. “When the federal and state governments will pay to build new suburban highways, streets, sewers, schools, and parks, but then allow these communities to exclude affordable housing and nonwhite citizens, the goals of the Fair Housing Act are not fulfilled.” In many ways, the country remains divided into two societies—one white, one black.

Exploiting the country’s racial divisions has been a feature of modern American politics since at least Richard Nixon’s adoption of the Southern Strategy. Over the past half-century, Democrats have consolidated support in cities, while Republicans have increasingly targeted rural areas. Since Trump’s victory, these trends have fueled the argument that Democrats must win more white, working-class voters if they are to reclaim political power.

But this tidy framing of cities versus rural America overlooks today’s true electoral battleground: the suburbs. Following World War II, as affluent whites fled the inner cities, suburbs became a central pillar of support for the Republican Party. In 1980, 78 percent of suburban census tracts were predominantly white. That fell to 42 percent by 2009, and diverse suburbs jumped from 16 percent to 37 percent over the same period. Suburban areas, in other words, no longer resemble the Leave It to Beaver landscape of yesteryear. Today, more than 60 percent of suburbanites live in integrated or predominantly nonwhite areas.

These shifts present problems for the Republican Party—which has historically relied on the suburbs as bulwarks against blue cities—and opportunities for Democrats, as evidenced most recently by the gubernatorial election in Virginia. In 2016, though Trump won more suburban votes than Hillary Clinton, he was still the third Republican presidential candidate in a row to fail to win 50 percent of the suburban vote. Trump lost not only inner-ring suburbs around Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, but also places like Cobb County, Georgia—which The New York Times once referred to as the “suburban Eden where the right rules.”

Fair housing has always been partly political in its aim. “The existence of segregated residential patterns helps politicians draw safe districts for white voters,” says Elizabeth Julian, a former HUD official and founder of the Inclusive Communities Project, a Dallas-based fair housing group. She argues that breaking down the racial, ethnic, and economic barriers that prevent people from living where they’d like to is not only good policy, but could also defuse some of the explosive dynamics that gave rise to Trump, and bolster the Democratic coalition in the process. “The political potential of integration is an overlooked benefit of integration,” Julian says.

Policies that promote desegregation could, of course, invite backlash. White suburban voters could retreat further into the fast-growing, right-leaning exurbs. And those who stay put could grow even more conservative if they feel a greater sense that their neighborhoods are being threatened by newcomers who don’t look like them. Still, those who worry about what Trump represents would do well to explore the possibilities of integrated, inclusive communities as a way to deny racial demagogues easy political footing. The Fair Housing Act was passed to spare America from what seemed to be a looming collapse. Now, at 50, it may yet do so.