Have Pet, Need Apartment
By Amy Souza
From Best Friends Magazine, November 2008

In the mid-1990s, a 12-year-old dog found himself at San Francisco’s county animal shelter. His intake card listed the reason: “Lndld.” The dog’s people were moving to an apartment whose landlord didn’t allow pets, so they chose to relinquish their dog to a shelter that, despite its aggressive adoption efforts, was not no-kill.

At the time, the city’s rental vacancy rate hovered in the single digits, and finding a decent place to live posed a challenge even for the non-pet owning population. When landlords held open houses, potential renters lined up early, sometimes around the block. Proving yourself as a worthy tenant meant verifying a healthy income, solid credit, and excellent references. The competition was fierce. Which is not to excuse that old dog’s owners’ choice to leave him behind while they moved on, but to point out that renting with pets can be a daunting proposition—one that requires perseverance as well as a fair amount of luck.

According to a 2008 Apartments.com survey, 84.4% of renters own a dog or cat; 35.2% of those renters declared it “very difficult to find an apartment that allowed pets.” Yet in the same survey, 85.7% of apartment buildings were said to be pet-friendly. Anecdotally, many renters—and animal shelter staff—would find that last number difficult to believe. In fact, the inability to find pet-friendly housing is often cited as a chief reason why dogs and cats are given up. The National Council on Pet Population Study & Policy gathers data on the U.S. pet population and compiles the Top Ten Reasons for Pet Relinquishment to Shelters. In 1998, Reasons # 1 and 2 for surrendered cats and dogs were “Moving” and “Landlord issues,” respectively. Today, those causes remain the same for dogs; for cats, moving is currently Reason #3 and landlord issues fell to #5. (The top reasons for relinquishing cats are now “Too many in house” and “Allergies.”)

Searching for a home

“I had a hard time finding a place that allowed pets and was also reasonable and had the other things I required, like being close to the Metro,” said Jennifer King, who in 2005 had to move from Nevada to Washington, DC, for work. “A lot of the pet-friendly places were too far out, and the ones in DC were $2,800 a month with no parking.”

In Carson City, Nevada, she and her husband rented a townhouse with a fenced backyard. Despite a two-pet limit, King’s landlord allowed her to keep her dog, bird, and rabbit.

“Our landlord was loose enough that she counted the bird and the bunny as a half-pet each,” she said.

By the time she was preparing to move to DC, King had adopted another rabbit. And due to scheduling, she had to rent her place sight unseen—so she started dialing.

“I’d spend forty-five minutes on the phone with property managers asking them, ‘What is your pet policy.’ Simply asking, ‘Do you allow pets?’ isn’t enough,” King said. “I also got everything they said in writing.”

King was at last able to find a small apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland, that had a two-pet limit. In addition to an extra $400 security deposit, the complex required pet rent of $25 per month. She and her husband signed on for a six-month lease and moved in with their dog, bird, and two bunnies. Luckily, rabbits are quiet animals, so they resided in the second bedroom, the door to which could be shut when workmen needed to come in. The apartment provided a transitional living arrangement until the couple could purchase a house, but King said she felt awkward living there and not entirely welcome.

“There were a lot of overgrown families with lots of screaming babies, but they were the first to complain if our dog barked,” King said. “Plus, there was no place for the dog to hang out outside.”

Pets not welcome

Rental housing comes in all shapes and sizes—from 10-floor apartment complexes to in-house flats or single-family homes. Similarly, there are many types of property owners, and no one reason why they choose not to allow pets. Perhaps they’re worried about damage to pristine hardwood floors, wall-to-wall carpets, or outdoor landscaping. Some may be concerned about liability (which is why some pet-friendly places enact breed bans), particularly as it pertains to dog bites. Rebecca J. Huss, professor of law at Valparaiso University, said liability laws vary state by state, but generally, if a landlord is not in control of a dog, he can’t be considered liable for its behavior.

“But in our litigious society, people prefer not to have even the possibility of being sued,” Huss said.

Legally, domestic animals are considered personal property, and Huss points out that property owners can restrict you from bringing in other possessions, too, such as waterbeds and aquariums. Only when an animal is considered a service animal must a landlord allow it, under the provisions of the federal Fair Housing Act.

And despite the fact that many more cat and dog lovers consider their animals family members, Huss said it’s unlikely they’ll attain such status in the eyes of the law any time soon.

“I think what we’re going to see before we see a switch from animals as property to animals as sentient beings is a wider recognition of the role that animals play in our lives,” she said. As an example, Huss points to a recent California law that states condo communities can’t disallow residents from owning one domestic animal.

Huss says landlords would actually do well to consider pet owners, however. “Studies have shown that renters with pets stay in their apartments a longer time, and that’s good for landlords. In essence, they make better tenants.”

Spreading the word

Many animal shelters and rescue organizations maintain lists of pet-friendly apartments, and some conduct outreach efforts to landlords. Boston’s MSPCA-Angell, for instance, has produced booklets to help integrate pets into multi-unit housing for seniors and others. The San Francisco SPCA provides information to property owners, such as the benefits of renting to pet owners and things to consider before allowing pets, and lists dog- and cat-friendly housing on its Web site. In Rochester, New York, Lollypop Farm has maintained a similar list of pet-friendly housing options for the past 10 years. The approximately 200 listings are available online, as well as on a hard copy flyer posted in the shelter and throughout the community and are updated quarterly.

“We keep track of what each landlord or apartment complex requires, as far as breed or size restrictions and deposits,” said Adrienne McHargue, Lollypop Farm’s program director of community outreach and director of communication. “Landlords call and ask to be put on the list. It’s a free avenue for them to market to tenants.”

But even the most responsible tenants face a challenge. McHargue said the Rochester area is not necessarily unwelcoming to pet owners, but “there are hoops that can discourage people. Places might allow cats but not dogs, or they allow dogs but only certain sizes or breeds.”

A few years ago when McHargue moved to the area from Washington, DC, where her landlord was extremely welcoming to pets, she ended up purchasing a house because she couldn’t find a rental.

“We were forced into buying due to the sheer number of pets we had—two dogs and two cats,” McHargue said. “We probably would have rented for a couple of years first.”

Catering to Fido

Recently, a number of apartment communities have begun catering to pet owners—promoting their pet friendliness, holding pet “happy hours,” even constructing dog parks on the community’s grounds.

David Zenn, director of operations for Highlands Westwood in Westwood, New Jersey, said marketing to pet owners makes sense because it gives the complex a greater pool of applicants. So far, the policy has worked out well.

“I would say ninety-nine percent of our residents who have pets are responsible. They take care of their pets and make sure to be courteous and they are aware that not all people like their pets,” Zenn said. “We really don’t have too many issues because they consider the pet a part of their family and take care of them just like they would a member of their family.”

Problems can arise, of course. “Some pets like to stand near a door and are barkers, or if they are kept in a room that is adjacent to another apartment they will bark at night,” Zenn said. “We do have a responsibility to treat pets just like any other noise complaint, just like children jumping and playing around or blaring music. We treat it all at the same level.”

A perennial challenge, increased?

Both cats and dogs are allowed at the Highlands, and though there are no size restrictions for dogs, the complex does ban some breeds that are generally deemed to be aggressive, such as Pit Bulls. In fact, breed and size restrictions make house hunting that much harder for renters who own large dogs. The mildest mannered German Shepherd—whether 18 months or 9 years old—can be a big impediment to finding a place.

“A lot of the calls I handle now are because of breed-based issues,” said Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy at MSPCA-Angell in Boston, who for years rented with her large dog. “Whether people are renting or not, this is a big issue, particularly due to insurance. So a landlord might say they would allow a pet but their insurance company won’t let them because of its breed.”

In addition, as home foreclosures increase, so do the number of pets brought into animal shelters. And the number of people searching for rental housing will likely go up as some who have lost their homes turn to renting, along with tenants who face eviction after their rental unit enters foreclosure.

Lollypop Farm’s management system can’t track relinquishment due to landlord issues, but McHargue says anecdotally the staff knows at least some people who say they’re giving up their dog or cat due to “moving” are doing so because they’re headed to a place that doesn’t allow pets.

“What we don’t know is if people looked for a place and couldn’t find one, or if they couldn’t afford the deposit or the rent, because sometimes places that allow pets are more expensive,” McHargue says.

In Boston, the number of dogs and cats surrendered to MSPCA-Angell because of landlord issues increased from last year to this year—for cats, it more than doubled and for dogs it increased by almost 50%. At MSPCA-Angell’s shelter south of the city, however, the figures are reversed. The number of cats given up due to landlord issues is down by 52%, dogs by 36%.

Holmquist, who has worked at MSPCA-Angell for 14 years, says she’s seen the numbers fluctuate, usually based on market conditions, but says that relinquishment reasons are self-reported so provide qualitative data at best.

Promoting change

So, can anything be done to improve the prospects of pet-owning renters? The MSPCA’s Holmquist suggests animal lovers pay attention to any local or national legislation that might affect pets in rental housing, but said the most important action is personal.

“The bottom line is, people need to be responsible pet owners and set good examples, to act in a way that would make a landlord allow animals in again,” Holmquist said. “Being an ambassador for responsible tenants is something any pet owner who rents can do.”

In addition, it pays to spread the word.

“I would encourage people not to give up,” said Rebecca Huss, “to continue to look for alternatives, and to talk to landlords about it. The more people ask about it, the more landlords will see that this is an important part of the rental decision and the more units will decide that it’s worthwhile to give pet guardians a chance.”

SIDEBAR:

ISO pet-friendly housing

When searching for rental housing, particularly in a competitive market, the key is to sell yourself as a model tenant. This means promoting your dog or cat, too. Some of the common sense approaches are well known:

  • Be sure your animal is spayed or neutered.
  • Show evidence of your dog’s behavior, either a Canine Good Citizen certificate or proof that you’ve taken her to training classes.
  • Create a resume for your pet that notes his age, that he’s housebroken, and gives some details about his personality and (good) habits.
  • Get letters of recommendation from past landlords.

In addition, be sure you do due diligence when investigating your options. “Make sure where you’re moving is really animal-friendly,” said Adrienne McHargue, program director of community outreach and director of communication at Lollypop Farm. “Even if they say they’re pet friendly, pay attention if the landlord seems really picky about his carpets and you think you’re cat might do something on them, or if it seems like one or two barks from a dog will get the neighbors upset. Just keep in mind the kind of community you’re moving into.”

Perhaps most importantly, don’t give up. “I always tell people, it’s just like looking for a job or a mate—it’s out there,” said Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy at Boston’s MSCPA-Angell. “Make sure to leave yourself with enough time, but remember that you just need one [apartment].”

 

SIDEBAR:

Take advantage of technology

Forty million Americans move each year—7.7 million move outside their current county; 7.6 million move out of state. So even if you currently live in a place that welcomes dogs of all sizes, what happens if you move? In addition to researching town or county breed bans and size or number restrictions, you may be faced with getting the lay of the land from afar. Luckily, the Internet provides instant access to abundant information, including apartment listings. Craigslist, for example, is the online house-hunting source of choice in many regions. Other sites, such as Apartments.com, offer free searches, and fee-based search agencies exist in many larger cities. In addition, forums like the ones found on City-Data.com provide access to people “on the ground”—residents and former residents who are usually happy to answer any question posed. (As with all Internet forums, however, caution and mettle are recommended; you never know who’s on the other end of a post, so don’t give out personal information, and just ignore any mean-spirited responses.)

 

SIDEBAR:

An unscientific look at the stats

It’s difficult to generalize about the experience of being a pet-owning renter, particularly because various regions of the country seem to possess different attitudes toward animals and their owners. A recent Craigslist search turned up some surprises. City rentals in San Francisco and Washington, DC, had similar levels of pet friendliness: 22-24% allowed dogs; 31-32% allowed cats; and 21-23% allowed both cats and dogs. The same search for apartments in Burlington, Vermont, a small northeastern city generally considered to be animal friendly, showed just 19% allowed dogs; 26% allowed cats; and 15% allowed both cats and dogs.

 

SIDEBAR:

Sneaking in

It’s never recommended to violate the terms of your lease for any reason, but plenty of pet owners do or have done at some point. Keeping an animal in an apartment that specifically bans them is dicey. Often, though, pet owners will live with more animals than are allowed. In either case, defying a lease could get you evicted and means living with a steady amount of anxiety, worrying about getting caught by a property manager or turned in by a neighbor. One Virginia resident lives with four dogs and a cat in a complex that allows two pets, total. On top of that, she fosters for a local rescue organization, so often has an extra dog or two. Because she has no outdoor space of her own, and to keep herself from getting caught, she walks the dogs in shifts. So far her neighbors, if they’ve caught on, have remained mum.

Before adopting out an animal, most shelters and rescue organizations require proof from renters that their landlord allows pets. Some insist upon this information from foster volunteers, as well. Other organization place responsibility on the foster volunteer and trust that if someone says they’re allowed to foster that indeed they can. Again, it’s best to err on the side of caution and ask your landlord before taking in a foster dog or cat. Some building owners will forego any standard per-month pet fee if they know you are providing a volunteer service.

 

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