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Rights + Justice

No Dogs Allowed

In a tight rental market, pets can lock you out. Is that fair?

Susan Hollis 29 Apr

Susan Hollis is a freelance writer in Vancouver.

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Susan Hollis and her roomie Igor.

As a recent transplant from Nelson, where the biggest questions around housing rentals hinge on whether you want to grow indoors or out, arriving in Vancouver with a dog in tow and no place to live was unnerving. Almost every paper had been running headlines on the housing crunch and microscopic vacancy rates, and I knew the pup wouldn't help.

And I was right. After looking at countless dives not fit for rats (but apparently good enough for those of us with dogs), I became dismayed. And panicked.

The Vancouver rental market seems to be divided into two categories for my price range of $1,200 per month.

If it's dog-friendly, it's a grimy basement suite with poor lighting and the stale smell reminiscent of that classmate's house you visited in Grade 2 -- the classmate allowed to drink as much strawberry Quick as he wanted, who had no bedtime, and a mother who smoked inside.

The other rentals I've viewed were perfect, with big windows, attractive detailing and great views. Those were the kind where mentioning the dog was on par with gabbing about the fun you're having with the do-it-yourself-porno kit you found online.

Why landlords say no

As deception is the spurned sibling of failed truth, I changed my tactics. No more jeans with one cuff hiked up from the bike ride. The ponytail was replaced by a French braid and once I even wore heels, which usually only happens on holidays. Instead of 20-something, I strove for 30-something, crinkling my eyes to enhance laugh-lines and dropping multi-syllabic words.

Such charms were futile against the apparent kryptonite of "dog." After being turned down by one landlord of a restored heritage one bedroom I was sure I had in the bag, I asked why? I was willing to pay a huge damage deposit, my dog is well-behaved, quiet and rarely left alone. I'm clean, don't smoke, and as a homeowner myself in Nelson, I make an excellent tenant. So why the hell wouldn't anyone take a chance on Igor and me?

"My first dog tenant was a setter of some type. His owner, a very nice young man who worked long hours, took good care of him and would take him out regularly for exercise and evacuation. Unfortunately, because of the long hours he was sometimes forced to work, the dog would be unable to contain himself and would urinate by the front door. This required ripping out the oak entry foyer floor and replacing it," he replied. "A couple of doors had to be replaced because of the claw marks. One yard had to be dug, levelled and reseeded. All in all, not too bad. The biggest thing is having the government tell me that, if I accepted a dog with a tenant, I was partially responsible for the consequences."

Indeed, when an owner accepts a tenant with a pet, they take partial responsibility for any damages that ensue if the deposit doesn't cover the repairs. The Tenancy Act says that a landlord must not require or accept a security deposit or a pet damage deposit that is greater than the equivalent of 1/2 of one month's rent, which in the case of extreme damages won't go the distance, even though pet owners often pay double the amount paid by non-pet renters. Landlords can legally charge pet owners an extra half month's rent along with the standard damage deposit, and according to Kris Anderson of Vancouver-based Tenant Resource & Advocacy Centre, many aren't getting their money back when they leave.

"Unfortunately people with pets are losing more and more damage deposits than everybody else. They're having a lot of trouble getting those costs back, even if there isn't unreasonable damage," he said. "People with pets are losing way more money than everybody else." Oh joy.

'The right to have pets'

According to Anderson, prior to 2004 the Residential Tenancy Act (RTA) was more flexible in terms of animals. It didn't say much about the matter, leaving it up to landlords to specify pet-related terms in their leases. If a tenant moved into a rental and signed a lease that didn't have a no-dog clause, they were free to get one after moving in and could successfully defend their right to do so. When the RTA was amended in 2004, it clarified a landlord's right to deny pets from the outset, removing the gray area and making it more difficult for pet owners to find rentals.

"When that happened it was a failure for the whole movement for people with pets and the right to have pets. There is no less of a need for people with pets looking for places to live, but now the legislation doesn't try the landlord's right to say no," continued Anderson, adding that now, "If you have a pet, it's as if you have less rights because you're afraid to move, as it's so hard to find another place to live. I think the buildings that do accept pets know that and take advantage of that situation. They let their buildings get run down and don't take proper care because they know their tenants have no choice."

Admittedly, the concerns surrounding pet-related damages are valid. But really, it comes down to the kind of tenant, not the kind of pet. A good friend who is up to her ears in naturopathic med school studies has spent two months longer than expected sleeping in another friend's living room while waiting to move into her new place, which needs extensive reparations thanks to the previous occupant. He didn't have a dog; he had a drug problem and a hammer.

A pet cause

To address these issues, tenant advocate Jessica Klein started an online petition and a Facebook group (Pets in Rental Housing, British Columbia) to pressure the government to amend the legislation to better aid renters with pets. She's been looking for a pet friendly rental unit within her budget and tastes for two years.

"The single issue I hear that pet owners have is that there is virtually no pet-friendly housing available," Klein said, adding that the top seven requirements regularly stated on rental ads include: no pets, no smoking, suits single person only, no loud music, no parties, prefer single working quiet professional, and adult oriented. "This is discriminating behaviour on the part of landlords."

Klein argues that the RTA already sets out appropriate conditions to evict a tenant who disturbs the peaceful enjoyment of others, including consistently loud music or barking dogs, therefore removing the need for blanket no-pet policies.

"The issue I have with this situation is that it encourages a society of intolerance and discrimination at a level that is a basic requirement for human health -- our right to have shelter. It restricts our ability to have families, to have loving relationships with other people, children and animals in our homes. It restricts our ability to engage in positive social gatherings in our home. It has started to take away inch-by-inch more and more freedom from those who cannot afford to buy a home."

Sticking with Igor

So where are we pet owners supposed to live when the average buy-in on a Vancouver house is near $1 million and rentals won't take a chance on my pooch and me? Of course the hard-asses are saying, "get rid of the dog and maybe we'll consider you" or "that's your problem, not mine." But I'm not abandoning Igor, period.

And I believe that just like denying people rental rights due to skin colour, or number of kids (or piercings), denying pet owners reasonable access to livable standards should be monitored, or at least addressed by laws that work.

"From my perspective, there is no reason landlords will change their minds without incentive to, which is why we are asking the province to act on our behalf and change the RTA," said Klein. Landlords, "simply should not be offering accommodation if they cannot tolerate other people living their lives freely, so long as it does not interfere with the peaceful enjoyment of other residents, including landlords."

As I wrap this article, I am days into a new apartment. It's overpriced, but I was desperate and my dog was welcome. That being said, I've carefully documented every pre-existing crack and scratch in the walls and floors with my video camera in case the owner tries to keep any part of my $1250 damage deposit when I leave. The market may work in favour of the landlord, but that doesn't mean I have to lose the game.

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