FARGO — Nate Scholle and his trusted scent hound, Tucker, depend on each other. Scholle makes sure Tucker’s food bowl is full, and Tucker keeps his master healthier, providing comfort during sleepless nights.
The pair are inseparable, by love, and by law.
“He’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Scholle said.
But last July, after Tucker became Scholle’s emotional support animal, he said he was forced out of his north Fargo apartment. Mediators from the High Plains Fair Housing Center and the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights became involved, but the stress was too much for him.
“I settled because I needed the money,” said Scholle, who said he has mental health issues. “The whole thing was stacked up against me from the beginning. I lived in a pile of boxes. I had to quit a job. I was so drained because I couldn’t lift my arms to work. It cost me a job, it cost me an apartment, it cost me all sorts of money, and in the end, all I got was $700 bucks, and we had them dead to rights for $3,000.”
Scholle had all the proper paperwork for his furry companion. Tucker is housetrained and well behaved. “I was legally entitled to have him here. He’s a pro,” Scholle said.
“I was discriminated against because I was right and they didn’t want to hear it. There is a culture of people getting away with things, so they keep getting away with things,” Scholle said.
The discrimination Scholle faced helped prompt a recent undercover investigation by the High Plains Fair Housing Center, an organization in Grand Forks that works to ensure all North Dakotans have equal access to housing.
The center’s investigation found that many landlords across the state are discriminating against people with mental health issues, which is illegal.
North Dakota law states that a “person may not refuse to sell or rent … to an individual because of race, color, religion, sex, disability, age, familial status, national origin ….”
“But we noticed about a year ago we were getting a lot of people that were on the verge of eviction or on the eve of it based on their disabilities,” said Michelle Rydz, executive director of the High Plains Fair Housing Center.
“We wanted to investigate a little more. We usually do audit tests once a year. Two years ago it was the LGBTQ test where we did tests based on discrimination of transgender people. This year we decided to look at mental illness,” Rydz said.
Undercover testers posed both as potential renters with disabilities and without disabilities when meeting with landlords across the state, and came back to report 23% of landlords were steering the testers said to have disabilities to cheaper places. And 16% of the testers posing as having disabilities were told no units were available, while the other testers were told units were available.
Of the testers said to have disabilities, 5% were asked “intrusive questions about their disabilities,” and in-person tests showed a 25% preference for the controlled tester, or the person acting with no disabilities, Rydz said.
“I think one of the reasons that they added disability protections 20 years after the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 was because of the misperceptions people have of those with mental illness. Property managers are not looking at people as individuals, and believing in the misperceptions,” Rydz said.
“We do need more services for mental illness. There’s just not enough resources for people,” she said. “And if there aren't services, people end up on the street, homeless, and then it’s hard for them to be stable and be on their medications. It’s terribly concerning.”
Federal court challenge
The Fair Housing Act made discrimination against renters with disabilities illegal in nearly all types of housing, including private housing, public housing, and housing that receives federal funding. The law also defined emotional support animals not as pets, but as an animal that provides emotional support and alleviates symptoms of a person’s disability.
Renters must provide proper documentation for an emotional support animal, and landlords must take into account a disability-related need for the animal.
The federal law came up in the 2010 U.S. District Court of North Dakota case when Fair Housing of the Dakotas Inc. and other plaintiffs sued Goldmark Property Management. The court found that Goldmark’s charging of fees for companion animals, but waiving of fees for service animals, was discriminatory against disabled people.
Attorneys for Goldmark argued that emotional support animals were creating excessive damage to its properties in North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, and the real estate company began charging monthly fees for tenants with emotional support animals, according to court documents.
“Goldmark’s stated fee policy is not generally applicable but instead treats persons with mental disabilities who need emotional support animals less favorably than persons with physical disabilities who need service animals,” federal lawyers argued in an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs.
'Constant fear of being homeless'
Scholle, who was not a Goldmark tenant, now lives in an apartment that allows pets, but he knows that his rights were violated last year.
“Federal and state agencies were vouching for the legitimacy of my claim, and despite that, nobody seemed to take it serious, even from the landlord’s part,” Scholle said, adding that if his case had gone to court he would have had to hire a lawyer and sue afterward for reimbursement.
“And if landlords need to settle, they know it won’t be much money anyway. It’s very difficult for the tenant. I was just amazed how nonchalant they were and how they didn’t take it seriously. All our ducks were in a row, and it didn’t phase them,” Scholle said.
Few renters have money saved in the bank for difficult times, he said, and it's a "daunting" prospect for them to take on a landlord or go to court.
“People should not be living in constant fear of being homeless. The stress in that scenario was to the sky and beyond,” Scholle said. “This is a tale that should be heard. It is as cruddy as it gets.”