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Senate Bill Seeks Protections For Renters With Emotional Support Animals, But Questions Loom

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Simone Dalmeri
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit Simone Dalmeri / Unsplash
The Florida Channel

Republican Senator Manny Diaz wants people who need emotional support animals to be able to rent condos or apartments without facing discrimination. His bill addressing the issue is advancing, but is facing skepticism from his colleagues.

Similar legislation died last year, but Diaz says it’s been refined for this session.

“Tailored specifically to housing. It doesn’t apply to hotels or other dwellings, so that’s one change from last year when it was a little more broad.”

Diaz describes the current process of getting a certificate to have an emotional support animal as the ‘wild wild west.’

“You can go on the internet and pay a fee, and with one click, you can get yourself a printed certificate that says you need an emotional support animal,” Diaz told his colleagues. “And in many cases, no exaggeration here, we have seen people take it to the extreme where they are trying to board a plane with an alligator.”

It’s been likened to diploma mills – a nebulous process that takes place online, phony certificates issued without any defined authority. Diaz’s bill looks to get a handle on who’s doing the certifying:

“What this bill is doing – I don’t think it’s creating more government – it’s just saying hey, if you’re a legitimate practitioner, then you can certify this,” the South Florida Republican said. “And, as we do in many other areas, we want to keep those folks who are either not credible or flat-out committing fraud from being involved.”

The proposal provides protections for people with a certification, which Diaz says he wants given by a medical practitioner. Emotional support animals are commonly used by people like veterans, who suffer from post-traumatic stress.

Republican Senator Doug Broxson says he’s also had personal experience knowing someone who benefitted from the animals.

“There was a roommate of our daughter in college who suffered some really traumatic stuff when she was young,” Broxson recalled. He described how, when tense situations arose, the animal would come into play.

“We’d get back where her pet was, that pet would come right to her, and you could see a change in her. You could see that she immediately essentially recovered from the stress,” Broxson said.

But some senators on the Agriculture panel were skeptical about how the bill would interact with what’s on the books. Broxson raised questions:

“Are you telling me that if I got a certificate, and I have an apartment complex that is absolutely no animals – you cannot even fill out the application if you have an animal – and then I go after I move in, I go online and I get a certificate that says I am in emotional need to an animal of some sort, that that usurps the Landlord-Tenant Act?”

Diaz acknowledged the ambiguities, and told his colleagues he intends to work out the details of how the two coincide. He says it’s not without accountability to the renter, though. Diaz says the bill doesn’t let tenants off the hook for any damages to the residence, something he thinks associations and management companies will like.

“If the animal does cause damage within the dwelling, there is a responsibility to the owner,” Diaz said. “And it really lays out the plan for (doing) this … it also makes the falsification or misrepresentation of needing and using an emotional support animal a second-degree misdemeanor.”

As far as ‘unconventional’ support animals go in the context of the bill, a question raised by Senator George Gainer, Diaz says that would be at the discretion of the certifier.

Sen. Gainer: “What if it was a potbellied pig, or a Shetland pony?”

Sen. Diaz: “That is up to the practitioner.”

Kelly Mallette, a lobbyist for the Florida Apartment Association, spoke in support of the bill.

“I can tell you we’ve also received support from veterans groups on the matter,” Mallette told lawmakers. “They’ve testified in other committees in the House, I don’t know if they’re here today, but I think there are folks who do genuinely need these types of animals”

Rep. Sam Killebrew has a companion bill in the House, which has already passed its first committee stop.

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.