CHICAGO—The Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) has long served as a legislative advocate for its membership. Today, three of those issues, which are very much in the news, are also on the watch list for IREM leadership as they lobby and wait for guidance on sometimes-slow-to-move governmental bodies: Service and emotional support animals, marijuana legislation and the ongoing battle for long-term flood insurance reauthorization and reform.
As Chip Watts, CPM, secretary/treasurer of IREM, explains, “Unlike service animals, which are regulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, have certification, and are trained for specific jobs, emotional support animals are regulated by the Fair Housing Act.” But, he adds, they come with very little specific guidance.
The president of Watts Realty Co., Inc., AMO, in Birmingham, AL, he makes clear the Institute’s unwavering support for the necessity of both services. “IREM absolutely supports the rights of persons with disabilities to request reasonable accommodation for companion animals and equal access to housing,” he says. “It’s important not to trivialize the issue and their presence, which is protected under the law.”
“The question is, ‘How will companion animals be regulated?’, and that’s where we’ve been working with The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to revise its regulations, provide clear guidance and minimize the abuse.” He explains that while service animals have been restricted to dogs and miniature horses, the field is wide open for companion animals, which he says have ranged from multiple cats (one for each type of need) to geckos and even fish in tanks large enough to exceed the floor loads of the apartment unit.
“Unfortunately, some tenants are taking advantage of the lack of guidance from HUD in the number and type of companion animals they can have,” he says. This makes it extremely difficult to manage an apartment with any degree of consistency.
“We’re pursuing that line of questioning with HUD,” he says, “and my last report indicated that HUD had submitted guidelines to the Office of Management & Budget for review.” Interagency issues are currently batting the guidelines back and forth, but “It’s my understanding that those guidelines will be released formally sometime in the near future.”
But Watts has heard this before, apparently, and “HUD has pushed back the deadline on this quarter-by-quarter. They originally told us guidelines would be released at the end of the third quarter of 2018. And here we are, almost a year later.”
Short of such guidance, states are slowly taking the issue into their own hands, Watts’ home state of Alabama among them. The Yellowhammer State recently passed a law requiring therapist intercession and approval. “It would also limit the type and number of animals allowed in a unit. Anyone who abuses the situation could face charges.”
The frustrations of providing membership guidance for emotional support animals might pale in comparison to the disconnect between states and the Fed when it comes to marijuana laws. “Pending definitive Congressional movement, IREM doesn’t have a stated policy on the issue,” he says. “Short of the Federal government taking a stand and relaxing marijuana from its classification as a Schedule One drug, we ask our members to stay up-to-date on the legality of the cultivation, use and sale of marijuana in their jurisdictions.”
IREM director of government affairs Ted Thurn points out that in October, the Institute’s Denver chapter will host a national conference on the subject. The conference, he says, is designed to do a deep dive into “state and city regulations.” Canada, which has just legalized recreational use across the board, will also be a prime topic of conversation.
“The biggest issue is education,” says Watts. “Every state is different in its approach to legalization. Property managers need to be educated on what their states’ laws are with regard to medical or recreational marijuana.” There are issues tangential to use, such as the documented growth of mold and the issues surrounding collection of all-cash rent, since money generated from pot sales is restricted from the U.S. banking system.
That issue brings up talk of money laundering and RICO laws. “That’s the issue,” says Watts. “The rift between federal and state laws has left banks trapped between their mission to serve the financial needs of the local communities and the threat of federal enforcement.”
A lack of definitive Congressional movement also plagues the question of a permanent National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Currently set to expire on September 30, 2019, the NFIP has been kicked down the road consistently over the past few years.
“Since 2017, it’s been renewed short-term 12 times now,” says Watts. “Meanwhile, there are millions of small businesses and homeowners who depend on the NFIP to protect their properties against flooding. This current extension gets us a little over halfway through hurricane season this year.”
IREM’s stance on the issue is clear: “We’d like to see some reforms, and we’ll continue to lobby Congress to extend until we can reform. We want to see reauthorization for at least five years. We want to see an increase in affordability through lower surcharges on the program. We want to see FEMA create more granular rate tables that better align rights with actual risk. Finally, we want to see loans and grants to help mitigate flood risk and increase access to private-market flood insurance.”
Thurn notes that IREM is part of a multi-organizational coalition to lend their voices to the lobbying effort on behalf of all of the above-stated reforms.
Clearly, however, it’s an uphill battle. “Every time Congress has moved to reauthorize, it’s been just a week before expiration, or the night before. So it’s hard to judge how they’ll react and enact an extension. It’s always been used as a political football.”