Pet owners are grappling with rental insecurity. Despite the popularity of pet ownership across countries such as Australia (where 63 per cent of households include a pet), the United States (62 per cent) and United Kingdom (46 per cent), rental policy rarely recognises pets as important members of households. Instead, landlords and property agents typically restrict the right to keep pets.
Reports from animal welfare organisations suggest these policies make it difficult for pet owners to find rental housing. There is also evidence of connections between rental insecurity and poor animal welfare outcomes. And insecure housing, including difficulties finding pet-friendly rental properties, is often a key factor driving people to relinquish their pets.
The No Pets clause
My research shows that pet ownership can trigger feelings of housing insecurity for renter households. The research involved an open survey with 679 households that had rented with pets in Sydney, as well as 28 in-depth interviews.
The majority of survey respondents rated finding pet-friendly housing in their suburb as difficult. They perceived that it became more difficult to find rental properties after they acquired their pet.
About half of those who always declared their pets when they applied for properties had been given pet ownership as the reason their application was rejected. These figures are likely to represent only a small proportion of those who have been rejected for pet ownership as reasons for rejection are rarely provided.
The competitive nature of Sydney’s rental market, which gives real estate agents a larger pool of tenants to choose from, was believed to have increased the challenge. A small number of households had even been offered rental housing if they got rid of their pet. These experiences led to a sense of rental insecurity and feelings of stress when participants wanted or needed to move house.
Compromising on quality, cost and location
In the in-depth interviews, households were asked how they found their current rental property. They explained how long lists of available rental properties would disappear when the “pet-friendly” filter was activated on popular property search websites.
There was also a widespread perception that advertised pet-friendly housing was of a lower quality than housing that did not allow pets. Many described making compromises on property quality and cleanliness. Some purposefully chose less desirable properties to increase their chance of success.
For example, one participant stated:
I think they call them ‘pet friendly’ because they don’t really care what happens to them. They’re probably going to pull them down eventually.
It was quite heartbreaking when you looked at the properties, because they were pretty much all rundown and disgusting. Really sort of dark and dingy, bathrooms that you would see were, I suppose, just not up to scratch. Or houses that seriously probably haven’t had a lick of paint or anything done to them in 20, 30 years.
Households also made compromises on property location and cost. These choices led to feelings of housing stress. For some it meant living in housing they considered sub-standard, including properties that were unclean or located in undesirable or unsafe areas. A number accepted longer work commutes or greater financial stress to secure a property.
As one interview participant put it when explaining why they stayed in a neighbourhood they didn’t like:
My car is on the street and it’s been broken into several times and there are a few personal safety issues. But they let me have the cat, so...
The vast majority of pet owners declared some or all of their pets when applying to rent a property. Those who had previously been rejected for a property because they had a pet were less likely to declare their pets. Why take this risk?
In-depth interviews suggest that renter households were extremely concerned about housing security: they valued their rental property and wanted to live in it as long as they could.
However, some felt that they could secure a property only if they didn’t declare their pets. Despite finding it extremely stressful to live in a rental property without permission to kept their pets, these households risked eviction so they could find somewhere to live with their pets.
Are landlords' fears justified?
Tenant experiences in the research suggest that landlords are concerned about the risks to their properties that pets might bring.
Sometimes these concerns are based on real experience. However, there is some evidence to suggest that landlord fears are just that.
In one US study, for instance, 63 per cent of landlords who were concerned about pets in their properties didn’t have any firsthand experience of the problems they identified. Further, when damage did occur it was “far less than the average rent or the average pet deposit”.
In Australia, somewhat counter-intuitively, having a pet-permitting lease may provide more protection for landlords than simply restricting pets. Pet-friendly leases do not mean all pets are automatically allowed. Landlords can ask for a “pet CV” as well as references for the pet, such as from a local vet, neighbours or former landlord. This is a way of ensuring the pet applicant is appropriate to the property.
Some jurisdictions in Australia allow for special provisions such as for carpets to be steam-cleaned if an animal such as a cat or dog lives at the property. In others, such as in the US and some states in Australia, an additional pet bond can be charged to cover any potential damage.
A pet-friendly lease may even bring benefits. US research suggests that households with pets stayed in rental properties longer than those that did not have pets. This brings longer-term, more secure rent to property owners. These factors are worth weighing up when landlords are making property management decisions.