A week before their move from Maryland to Colorado, Hannah Pinkerton and Andrew Schubauer still didn’t have housing on the other end. They’d spent months searching online for rental properties in Fort Collins that would permit a Doberman Pinscher, a Lab mix, and a Beagle. No luck.
“There was only one complex that allowed our combination of pets, and it was ridiculously expensive. I felt panicked,” says Pinkerton, 26, who teaches Spanish. “My backup plan was to tent camp in the local parks until we could find a place.”
At the last moment, the couple located a house rental through Airbnb. They’re happy where they landed. “The owner doesn’t charge us any extras for the dogs, nor any pet deposit,” says Pinkerton.
They were lucky. Most property owners require a pet security deposit of several hundred dollars—which, in some states, is nonrefundable—on top of the standard security deposit. In a 2014 nationwide email survey of 3,000 apartment renters conducted by Apartment.com, nearly 80 percent of pet owners reported paying a pet deposit, up from around 60 percent in 2013. Many properties also charge a monthly pet fee. Some ban dogs altogether, or those over a certain weight, or certain breeds.
“Pet owners are sometimes backed into a corner between having a home and keeping their pet,” says K.C. Theisen, director of pet care issues for The Humane Society of the United States.
No pets allowed
Legally, landlords have the right to refuse renting to people with pets, says Matthew Liebman, the chief legal counsel to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, based in Cotati, California. There are a few exceptions. Under the Fair Housing Act, a federal law that prevents discrimination against tenants, people with disabilities who have a service or an emotional support animal must be allowed to keep it—without paying any pet-related fees—regardless of the landlord’s pet policies, says Liebman.
But not everyone with an emotional support animal is aware of his or her rights. Jemal Davies, 44, tearfully describes surrendering his Cane Corso puppy to an animal shelter out of fear that his family would be evicted from their Section 8 apartment in Brooklyn. Davis says that Housing Authority employees assured him that Smokey wouldn’t be a problem. But shortly after moving into the new apartment, he received a letter stating that he was in breach of his lease by owning Smokey.
“I really loved that dog,” says Davies. “I took him everywhere. When there was no one there for me to talk to, I talked to him. It hurts.” Though emotional support animals don’t have to be specially trained, tenants must provide their landlord with a letter from their mental health provider. The Humane Society is trying to help Davis get Smokey back.
“The majority of landlords prefer to have tenants with no pets,” says Matthew Carcone, co-owner of Gordon James Realty, which manages residential and commercial buildings in Maryland, D.C., and New York City. But this policy is difficult to carry out now that more than 70 percent of U.S. renters are pet owners. If landlords decide to prohibit animals, “they are shrinking their tenant pool and their [units] will sit vacant for a longer time,” says Carcone.
That’s not necessarily the case in competitive housing markets where rentals go quickly. To move into her midtown Manhattan apartment with her French Bulldog, Royce, Jaime Getto, 24, paid a nonrefundable $750 pet fee.
Carcone says pet problems are minimal if property owners lay down pet rules and strictly enforce them. He only admits dogs weighing less than 50 pounds because he believes that bigger dogs are more likely to cause more wear and tear. Carcone also prohibits “aggressive” breeds, like Doberman Pinschers and pit bulls. “Not only does the stigma around these types of pets potentially scare other residents, but insurance companies won't offer coverage if tenants have aggressive breed dogs,” he says.
Other policies focus on each dog’s unique personality. Post Brothers Apartments in Philadelphia is pet friendly, but Mike Pestronk, the CEO and co-founder, requires prospective tenants to bring their pets in for an interview. The property manager reaches out to pet the animals. “If the dog sticks his tongue out and smiles, he’s welcome,” says Pestronk. “If he growls and tries to bite, we generally do not permit that dog.”
While many apartment buildings claim to be pet friendly, landlord issues are a prime reason that up to 8 million pets wind up in animal shelters each year, and 2.4 million are euthanized for lack of homes, says Inga Fricke, director of pet retention programs at the Humane Society of the United States. In a recent national survey conducted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, nearly 6 percent of 10,000 current or past pet owners reported giving a pet away to a friend, family member, or shelter within the past five years. Of these respondents, 30 percent said that access to pet-friendly housing would have helped them keep their pet.
Finding common ground
The Humane Society recently rolled out a national campaign, Pets Are Welcome, aimed at educating pet owners about how to increase their chances of finding housing and changing misperceptions that property owners, landlords, and insurers have about pets.
“We are working with individuals on how to be a great pet renter. If your dog is healthy, well cared for, and socialized, it’s more likely to be approved,” says Theisen. “It only takes one bad experience to sour a landlord’s attitude—a dog that barks, a cat that ruins carpet.”
The Humane Society is meeting with property owners in the hopes of convincing them to lift breed and weight restrictions. “We don’t want to leverage change in a way that is not positive; we want to collaborate with property owners,” Theisen says. The HSUS is also reaching out to insurance companies that refuse to insure renters who own big dogs or have breeds perceived as aggressive. “There is no data that supports that big dogs are more destructive to property or inherently aggressive,” says Theisen.
The overarching goal is for pets to get to stay in their homes, says Theisen. “It comes down to saving lives.”
The Humane Society offers these tips for keeping your pet and landlord happy:
- Provide documentation. Note whether your pet has completed a training class, been spayed or neutered, and is up-to-date on vaccines. A letter of recommendation from your current landlord can help, too.
- Organize a meeting. Invite the landlord or property manager to meet your pet.
- Correct your pet’s behavior. Barking, marking, and scratching are likely to annoy landlords. Ignore your dog’s barking until he learns to quiet down, and interrupt a scratching cat by making a loud noise and redirecting her to her scratching post. Ask your vet for suggestions, too.