Five million more homes are waiting by Ruth Smiler

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2000:

In 1997 I closed my antiques shop in Vermont and moved to California to begin a snow-free life. I neither intended nor expected to become an expert on homelessness, either human or quadruped.

When the cottage I had rented in Oakland was sold, I failed to find another apartment for me and my two dogs. The three of us movedback into the camper van in which I had crossed the country, staying with friends for a few days here and there, house-sitting once for four weeks.

Since then I have experienced apartment hunting in Miami, San Diego, and suburban New York. Renting with pets is tough. And it is not just a problem for renters. It is also a growing problem for the humane community.

Of the estimated 7.5 million animals who entered shelters in 1999, about 30% were owner-relinquished. A 1997 National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy survey of reasons for owner relinquishment found that “moving” was the most-often cited reason for giving up dogs, and was the thirdmost-often-cited reason for giving up cats.

Altogether, “human housing issues” accounted for 29.1% of dog surrenders and 26.3% of cat surrenders, found M.D. Salman, John G. New Jr., Janet M. Scarlett, and Philip H. Kass, in a 1998 study of Human and Animal Factors Related to the Relinquishment of Dogs and Cats.

Whatever the precise numbers, the trauma to both animals and humans resulting from scarce accommodations is a vast and largely unaddressed tragedy.

More than a third of all renters move each year, compared with just 8% of homeowners. Many move not because they want to, but because they must, due to unwelcome and unforeseen changes in economic or personal circumstances.

Not everyone can choose even temporary homelessness, as I did, rather than give up my pets. People who for personal or economic reasons are tied to booming cities with low vacancy rates can find themselves in particular distress.

But the shortage of pet-friendly rental housing is more than just a major cause of animals entering shelters. It is also a major obstacle to adoption.

If we can increase the number of rental units available to pet owners, fewer animals will be brought into shelters, decreasing the over-supply of pets that leads to population control killing––and, on the demand side, more places for people to live with pets will mean more can be adopted, so that fewer will die from lack of placement.

Creating even a modest increase in the supply of “pets welcome” rental housing could get the U.S. quickly to the point where no adoptable dogs or cats need be killed at all.

A third of all U.S. households rent, according to the Census Bureau. American Veterinary Medical Association data tells us that only 21% of renting households have dogs and/or cats. Among homeowning households, by contrast, 59% include dogs and/or cats.

Renters may not be as inclined to want pets as homeowners. Even so, if the rate of pet-keeping by renters rose just from 21% to 33%, still well below the overall U.S. rate of 46%, 4.3 million new homes would open to dogs and cats––enough to take in 85% of the estimated 4.85 million to 5.2 million dogs and cats who were killed in U.S. shelters last year.

If these new homes adopted animals at closer to the average U.S. rates of 1.69 dogs and 2.19 cats per pet-keeping household, they could take in as many as 6.5 million dogs and cats: 86% of all shelter entries.

How?

Reaching this goal, however, will take more than mere advocacy and education about responsible pet-keeping. Help must be given to owners and managers of rental housing in order to make them partners in the solution.

Now is an opportune moment to start. New legislation is soon to take effect which will extend to nearly all federally subsidized housing the privilege of pet-keeping previously enjoyed only by the handicapped and elderly.

Thousands of additional housing units throughout the country will become available to pet-keeping households––a sufficient number that the experience of the landlords and building managers will have an influence on the rest of the rental industry.

The integration of pets into federally subsidized buildings must be successful. We cannot assume that state or local housing officials or property managers will have the knowledge about animals, the skills, or the time and interest to do whatever is needed.

If the humane community wishes to secure these and additional millions of homes for dogs and cats, essential support services must be delivered to both pet-keeping tenants and the landlords they rent from.

Educating tenants, preferably on-site, about responsible pet care in high-density living will be necessary.

Most dogs given to shelters have had no obedience training. Yet obedience training is an obvious prophylactic against problems in a rental situation which might lead to relinquishment. Basic obedience and socialization classes should accordingly be offered on-site at multi-unit housing projects.

Services which directly assist in animal care, including dog-walking and litterbox maintenance, should be available to senior citizens and the physically disabled. This could be done on a sliding-scale fee basis, where appropriate––but the shelter community must also realize that a penny spent to keep an animal in a home can become a dollar saved over the cost of handling an abandoned animal.

In large rental communities, with many resident animals, a “Pet Ombudsman” might organize a Pet Committee, to mediate disputes and enforce rules; provide liaison between tenants and management; arrange tenant pet-sitting and dogwalking exchanges; ensure maintenance of a common off-leash dog yard; and perhaps provide on-site pet daycare.

There will be a critical need to help housing project managers develop reasonable pet-keeping policies. Unless a “Pet Ombudsman” assumes the ongoing duty of screening prospective animal-keeping tenants, project managers will have to be trained to do so. Model rental applications for petkeepers, lease riders, identification records, and policy statements should be supplied.

Fortunately, the San Francisco SPCA and various other leading humane organizations have already produced excellent materials which may be used as templates.

Opportunity knocks

There is already strong evidence that rentals open to pet-keepers tend to have lower vacancy rates, longer tenancies, and more responsible tenants.

During my own search for housing, I met a landlady in Oakland, California, who buys and renovates houses for rental exclusively to dog owners. She was so successful that she couldn’t acquire and renovate fast enough to meet the demand. Dog Law author Mary Randolph describes a 40-unit apartment complex in San Jose whose owner––not a pet person himself––believes that targeting dog-owning families by providing fenced runs attached to each apartment, plus free obedience lessons, is just good business, attracting better tenants.

Many landlords retain prohibitions against pet-keeping which entered standard rental contracts decades before altering pets and keeping them indoors when unattended became norms instead of exceptions. Others hold prejudices rooted in a single negative experience, or in hearsay about others’ experience. Yet in the five years since Massachusetts extended pets-permitted policies to state-subsidized family housing, and set up a Pet Grievance Panel to handle problems, the panel hasn’t had to deal with even one case!

Landlords who are willing to accept some pets tend to misunderstand which animals may become problematic. Many, for instance, will accept dogs only if they weigh below a certain level, or stand less than a specific height. That may keep out pit bull terriers, but paradoxically it also keeps out seven of the ten breeds best suited to apartments, according to a recent survey of veterinarians and behaviorists done by the apartment management consulting firm MarkeTactics, of Indianapolis. At the same time, MarkeTactics found, size restrictions tend to admit eight of the ten breeds least suited to apartments.

“Apartment operators who cater to residents with big dogs outperform their competitors,” MarkeTactics concluded.

Helping landlords to offer animal-affirmative housing is a win-win opportunity for both the animal welfare community and the real estate industry. I welcome inquiries about further particulars, and the chance to collaborate with sheltering and rescue organizations to help open more rental homes to pets, at >>GladragsR@aol.com<<.

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