Solutions to a Housing Crisis: Dogs & Cats Edition
December 17, 2018 1:01 PM   Subscribe

My town has an epidemic of renters forced to choose between their pets and a roof over their heads. How can I help?

I live in a small town that, like many places, is experiencing a housing crisis (not enough units, too many vacation rentals, all that jazz). Of those monthly rentals that are available, the vast majority have strict “no pet” policies, to the degree that our local animal shelter has set up a special room for people who cannot find pet-friendly housing to say goodbye to their animals. Ugh, right?? I’m not surprised by this, as when my parents advertised a vacancy in their rental last year, we got dozens of emails from desperate pet owners trying to find a place. My parents did end up accepting tenants with pets, but it broke my heart that they had to turn away so many others.

I’d like to try to do something about this. Right now, I’m wondering about the feasibility of setting up some kind of nonprofit organization that works with tenants and landlords to create more pet-friendly housing in our community. Maybe we raise funds and offer “grants” that will serve as damage deposits for tenants with pets, thereby giving landlords some peace of mind about having animals in their rental units. Maybe we also help tenants create “résumés” for their pets that can help assure landlords that the animals are well-behaved and up-to-date on their shots. Or maybe we do something else entirely? I’m not really sure where to start. We are a small rural town, but we also have quite a few wealthy (and even famous) part-time residents that might be willing to back this if we could get something down on paper and off the ground.

Does your community have any sort of organization like this, or do you know of one that does? Are there other solutions to this problem that I’m not aware of? Obviously supporting the animal shelter with donations and volunteers is critical, but the ultimate goal is to prevent owners from having to surrender their animals to the shelter in the first place. Resources, ideas, books, articles, or whatever on this topic would be much appreciated. Thank you!
posted by differently to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My province has a law that renders any "no pets" clause unenforceable and makes it close to impossible to evict or otherwise punish a person for having a pet. I moved into a "no pets" building with my beagle. My landlord gnashed his teeth and stomped and pouted but there was nothing he could do.

So whatever else you might do, advocating for protection in whatever landlord/tenant act is relevant to your town is something else you could consider.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 1:13 PM on December 17, 2018 [10 favorites]

Some thoughts:

-Assemble a network of folks willing to provide free or low-cost animal foster care/boarding for housing emergencies. Having a safe place to have your pet stay can be invaluable during periods of housing insecurity or other bad-for-pets situations. It might be even better if a facilitating organization could offer supplies and other resources to foster families.

-If you are in the US, some sort of resource guide for tenants & landlords that makes them aware of their housing rights under the fair housing act with emotional service animals (obviously this does not apply to all pets - I'm not advocating ESA fraud - just education!)

-Supporting creation of dog parks (ideally with private dog runs and other services for all types of doggy personalities, if I'm really dreaming here) which can help dog owners feel comfortable raising dogs in different types of housing stock (particularly smaller & yard-less apartments.)

-Depending on how hot the rental market is, provide landlords with extra publicity for their rental if they are pet friendly (this could even just be in the form of a facebook page that promotes their rentals.) The value of this probably depends on the market.

-Lobby for creation of pet-friendly policies for public housing and/or shelters where applicable.

-Provide resources for behavior help for issues like separation anxiety, inappropriate chewing, inappropriate urination, and other pet behavior that can threaten housing situations. This could be in-person help, workshops, private training, or even maintaining a good list of books.

As far as other organizations that do things like this - Pets for Life NYC is one I'm aware of; among other things they provide legal services for pet owners to help them with landlord disputes.
posted by mosst at 2:33 PM on December 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

Lots of good ideas above, particularly the emergency foster/boarding network so people don't have to surrender pets if they're dealing with temporary housing instability. Would the existing shelter be able to help organize or partner with such a service as an alternative to permanent surrender?

But if this is a symptom of a broader housing crisis, it might also be worth looking into advocacy around tenant rights and affordable housing in general. Does the town or state regulate vacation housing and services like Airbnb? Are there ways to incentivize landlords to forgo those short-term rentals in favor of longer-term tenants? Would there be political support for an ordinance to require landlords not to discriminate against tenants with pets? Are lots of renters (with or without animals) losing stable housing due to rent hikes or evictions? If so, maybe you want to think about interventions aimed at keeping people housed rather than finding them new housing after they've lost it. Etc.
posted by karayel at 3:46 PM on December 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

The most effective approach is to push through a law like the one in If only I had a penguin...'s province.
posted by aniola at 3:49 PM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Are there ways to incentivize landlords to forgo those short-term rentals in favor of longer-term tenants?

Just from Googling I came up with the fact that (apparently) tenants with pets are both more profitable for landlords and also will stay as tenants for longer than tenants with no pets. Maybe some kind of initiative (based on real numbers, not a random Google search) to make landlords more aware of this and be willing to offer more pet-friendly housing?
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 7:13 PM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’m wondering about the feasibility of setting up some kind of nonprofit organization that works with tenants and landlords to create more pet-friendly housing in our community.

Legal aid and other disability rights organizations may be able to provide assistance, because legal protections exist to help tenants overcome illegal discrimination against certain types of animals:
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) protects a person with a disability from discrimination in obtaining housing. Under this law, a landlord or homeowner’s association must provide reasonable accommodation to people with disabilities so that they have an equal opportunity to enjoy and use a dwelling.8 Emotional support animals that do not qualify as service animals under the ADA may nevertheless qualify as reasonable accommodations under the FHA.9 In cases when a person with a disability uses a service animal or an emotional support animal, a reasonable accommodation may include waiving a no-pet rule or a pet deposit.10 This animal is not considered a pet.
States may also have additional legal protections, and in my experience, legal aid attorneys can be very effective on behalf of tenants in helping landlords understand how to comply with applicable laws. Perhaps contact your local legal aid organization to find out what it might take to create a tenant rights clinic focused on issues related to pets, and that could maybe be a focal point of outreach and fundraising.
posted by Little Dawn at 8:18 PM on December 17, 2018

I don't have any answers... I'm someone that has been homeless THREE TIMES in an area much like you describe, because I was holding out for that unicorn of a rental that allows us to keep our pets. (I was NOT doing that to my kids, let alone myself.)

One thing that definitely needs to happen - there needs to be one specific way for animals to be designated emotional support animals, and it needs to be simple and easy to obtain for those that are already in crisis situations, often dealing with depression and anxiety, and may be in transition between medical and mental health providers. Many of those who ARE eligible to provide the necessary documentation find the requirements confusing and vague and so just refuse to deal with it. (And yes, I'm talking about those who validly qualify. I've had seven different people in my immediate household over the last few years that all experienced severe traumas or on-going mental health issues that definitely qualify them, and it's damn near impossible to obtain the documentation... unless you want to risk paying a few hundred dollars to a probably fake therapist online.)
posted by stormyteal at 8:25 PM on December 17, 2018

The requirements for emotional support animal documentation may vary by jurisdiction, but in some places, a letter from a doctor or a therapist may be sufficient - that's one of the reasons I think a tenant rights clinic may be able to make a difference in the community, especially if ThereIsHelp with things like finding affordable mental health support, including health care and health insurance.
posted by Little Dawn at 8:55 PM on December 17, 2018

If it's a small town, talk to your city councilor/mayor. This is the kind of thing a bylaw preventing no-pet policies might be able to fix overnight.
posted by Jairus at 10:21 PM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I like some of the ideas in your post, speaking as a very small-time landlord. You wouldn't even have to give money to tenants if you created some sort of ability for me to turn to you if damages exceeded the normal damage deposit. Pets can cause some expensive problems, like having to replace all the flooring, sometimes even the subflooring, in a given area, if the tenant handles the pee issue poorly. (I know of a house where the tenant didn't use litter boxes -- just put down newspaper, then put down more newspaper on top of where the cats went to the bathroom, layer upon layer in this one room. You'd probably be calling in the biohazard cleanup crew, replacing flooring, subflooring, maybe some floor trim and the lowest six inches of drywall?) The standard damage deposit is actually pretty low compared to what repairs can actually cost, and while bad stuff can happen with any tenant, pets raise the likelihood of bad things happening. I'm a very responsible pet owner, and in my own home, I'm worried that our elderly cat's accidents are causing serious damage to the flooring, so even with responsible people who have good pets, I know the risks are just much higher. If you were essentially a free or low-cost insurance system against this one particular kind of damage, that would go a long way. You'd obviously want to set up a pre-inspection system or at least require pre-occupancy photos to avoid abuse by shady landlords, and you'd want to make sure landlords collected a basic deposit from everyone.

The other issue that worries me is, what if the pet turns out to bark all night or bites the other tenant in the building, or what if the owner lets the dog poop all over the yard or chase people walking by? Those are my other concerns -- behavior issues, especially ones that are too minor to evict someone for but too majorly annoying to other tenants or neighbors to ignore. That's maybe where the pet resume could help.

Anyway, I think you're on the right track. One other idea is just to do a lot of feel-good outreach. Have your outreach be like "all these cuddly animals want to be your friend if only you'll be nice enough to let them move in." Animals are so inherently lovable; I think your cause will sell itself if you address landlords' concerns, at least it would with me. Couple that with sensible-looking landlords talking about how pet owners can be some of the most responsible tenants out there, and thanks to your program, there's almost no risk. That's what would work on me, anyway -- risk abatement combined with positive peer pressure and "aren't I cute?" The idea above of possibly offering free publicity to landlords could serve a dual role of helping tenants find pet-friendly places and letting you showcase stories and quotes from landlords who accept pets, influencing others to join in.
posted by slidell at 10:27 PM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

In my experience, discrimination can sometimes look like a request for otherwise-protected people to be "cute and cuddly," even though it may be illegal, and as noted above, landlords may suggest that legal protections don't exist against tenants who don't manage their pets in a safe manner, even when it is obviously not true. Part of why lawyers can so quickly address tenant concerns is because a basic understanding of landlord/tenant law can help deflect landlord scare tactics that might otherwise work to deny tenants equal access to housing.

This is not legal advice about what to do, but it is an example of how legal protections may work, and it is copied from a Disability Rights Oregon template for pet-related requests to landlords who might otherwise engage in illegal discrimination:
[Your Name]
[Your Address]
[Your City, State, Zip Code]

[Date of the letter]

[Name of Apartment Manager/Housing Authority/Landlord]
[Housing Complex]
[City, State, Zip Code]

Dear [Apartment Manager/Housing Authority/Landlord]:

I am [applying to become a tenant/a tenant] at [address]. Although you have a no pets policy, my [your physician, psychiatrist] has prescribed me an assistance animal to help me cope with the functional limitations I experience that are directly related to my disability, and to enhance my ability to live independently and to fully use and enjoy the rental unit you own and/or administer.

I am requesting that you modify your no pets policy to permit me to have the assistance animal recommended by my physician as a reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act.

Attached please find documentation from my [your professional (physician, psychiatrist)] of my disability and the functional limitations I experience as a result, as well as a prescription for an assistance animal to help me cope with my disability. The animal need not be certified or trained to perform this service for me.

Please reply in writing regarding this request for an accommodation within 10 business days. Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to receiving your reply.


[Your Signature]
[Your Name]
Attorneys in your jurisdiction can provide specific feedback and advice about how to address a situation like this, and whether it would be helpful to send a letter, and whether additional options are available to help address these types of concerns.
posted by Little Dawn at 9:47 AM on December 22, 2018

landlords may suggest that legal protections don't exist against tenants who don't manage their pets in a safe manner, even when it is obviously not true

No, I'm pretty sure that reasonable accommodation wouldn't include a requirement to allow an unsafe animal or exempt the tenant from liability. Everything I've read about this says that tenants are still responsible for the damage their animals do (which would include harm to others). I'd love to see a source correcting me if I'm wrong so that I can be aware. Also, the letter above isn't the way I'd go, because disability-support animals aren't considered "pets." The benefit of that is that then they are also exempt from additional "pet" deposits or rent.

Also, if the comment about "a request for otherwise-protected people to be 'cute and cuddly,'" was directed in response to my comment, then I'd like to point out that I was answering the original question, which is about encouraging landlords to rent to generic "tenants with pets" (and I talked about the pets being cuddly, not the people). I agree that people living with disabilities should be aware of their rights and that those rights aren't contingent upon being cuddly. But the question itself was about increasing housing for the average pet owner. The number of answers that relate to support animals in this thread - as though that's what any tenant with a pet should do - almost comes across as encouraging widespread fraud related to support animals, which is a bad idea.
posted by slidell at 3:35 PM on December 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

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