While a majority of landlords say they offer “pet-friendly” housing, affording such a lease, especially if you happen to be low-income or a person of color, is a very different story.
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The woman was crying when she called a friend from her Los Angeles-area apartment two months ago. Did he know anyone who might want to adopt her little black-and-white dog? No, she explained, she didn’t want to give it up, not at all. But she’d just gotten a new lease with changed terms: if she wanted to keep the dog, she’d have to pay an extra $50 a month in “pet rent.” And she just couldn’t afford it. Fifty dollars was groceries, a bus pass. There was nothing in her budget to cut, so this was her only option. The good news was that she did find her dog a new home. Which for her was also the bad.
“Your pet or your home” is the impossible choice facing a growing number of tenants as landlords in “pet-friendly” buildings impose an array of fees for the privilege of having a dog or cat. Pet deposits, on top of security deposits, add to moving costs. Nonrefundable pet fees are dollars that will never be seen again. Extra monthly pet rent adds hundreds, even thousands, to the cost of renting each year. To no one’s surprise, the burden falls heaviest on those least able to bear it. In a recent paper, “Pet Friendly For Whom?” Jennifer W. Applebaum, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Florida, data researcher Kevin Horecka, Ph.D., Lauren Loney of the Humane Society of the United States, Texas, and Taryn M. Graham, an independent researcher, reported the results of their survey of pet friendly housing across Texas. The conclusion was stark: “Low-income communities and communities of color were more likely than higher income and predominantly white communities to pay disproportionately higher fees to keep pets in their homes.” The problem “impacts a lot of people,” says Horecka, “and we’re not talking enough about it.”
We’re a nation of animal lovers, many of us tenants. Two-thirds of American households have pets and about 36 percent of households rent their homes, according to the Pew Research Center. And while a majority of landlords say they offer “pet-friendly” housing, landing such a lease—and affording it—especially if you happen to be low-income and/or of color is a very different story.
Low income tenants enter the rental market already at a disadvantage. “There is not a single state or metropolitan area in the country with enough housing that is affordable to extremely low-income families,” note Applebaum and Horecka. Low-income tenants, who make up almost a quarter of all rental households, already spend 50, even 70 percent of their income on housing, leaving them vulnerable to stress, food insecurity, and eviction. Renting while of color costs even more: a 2022 report from the real estate data firm Zillow, found that renters of color paid an average of $750 in security deposits compared to $600 for whites. Application fees were higher, too. Adding an animal or two to the mix adds to the problem. Landlords that accept pets usually have an existing laundry list of exclusions: You can have a cat but not a dog, one cat but not two, a dog but not a big one, absolutely no pit bulls. And in some cases, those restrictions may be deliberately exclusionary. In her 2018 report, “The Black Man’s Dog,” Harvard Law School Legislative Policy Fellow Ann Linder concluded that breed restrictions like a ban on pit bulls were “a new form of redlining to keep minorities out of majority-white neighborhoods.”
That’s if an affordable pet-friendly place can be found. In 2020, Daniel Rose, Courtney McMillian, and Onneya Carter, of Winston-Salem State University, studied rental listings in one North Carolina county and found that “while the vast majority of landlords allowed dogs and cats at rental units in predominantly white neighborhoods, less than half permitted pets at properties in African-American neighborhoods.” These neighborhoods also did not have the dog parks, pet supply stores, and veterinarians that white and gentrifying neighborhoods did.
More recently, Dianne Prado, a Los Angeles housing rights attorney and animal welfare advocate, had her office interns call 67 affordable housing providers in Los Angeles County. Only 13 even decided to answer the phone, though the interns made multiple calls. Of that 13, 11 didn’t allow pets, and besides, no one had any vacancies.
Facing extra pet fees represents the final hurdle. They’re justified as necessary to insulate landlords from pet-related damage or losses. Some apartments charge one extra fee, some two, some all three. In most cases, they’re perfectly legal—even public housing agencies can ask for deposits—and in cities without rent control, there’s nothing to stop a landlord from adding a monthly extra charge.
But what tenants are asked to pay doesn’t seem to have much relation to the “destruction” their pets cause. The 2021 “Pet Inclusive Housing Initiative Report” from Michelson Found Animals and the Human Animal Bond Research Institute is aimed at reassuring landlords that allowing animals is good for business. Pet owners stay in their apartments longer, reducing the cost of turnover. When there is a vacancy, pet-friendly apartments get re-rented more quickly. In large print, the report notes that the deposits and pet rents landlords can charge typically exceed pet-related damages. While tenants pay an average of $864 in deposits and $600 a year in extra rent, “the average dollar amount of extra damages caused by pets is $210 and many residents choose to pay for these damages out of their own pockets.”
That’s a difference of over $1,200. More, if a tenant stays longer than a year. Pet rent is the gift that keeps on giving. So how are these fees calculated? “It seems that everyone just charges what they can get away with,” says Horecka. The bite is big. One Los Angeles single mother who works retail and cleans houses on the side says she paid 500 nonrefundable dollars to move into her mid-city apartment—the better part of a week’s work.
Renters with pets and more love than money face an array of crappy choices. Housing problems are one of the top reasons pet are turned in at animal shelters; pet restrictions and an extra financial rent burden, wrote Ruby Aliment, Sara Rankin, and Kaya Lurie for the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project, are one reason “attempts to rehouse pet owners experiencing homelessness are consistently unsuccessful.” Trying to avoid the cascade of fees by hiding their pets from landlords is a risky strategy that carries a real danger of eviction.
Landlords can and do weaponize the pets of low-income tenants, says attorney Dianne Prado. “A tenant complains about a leak or infestation, and the next thing they know, an animal control officer is knocking at the door. The landlord has called to report them as abusers.”
“Our findings point to the hypothesis that pet fees are yet another discriminatory practice that inevitably leads to poorer housing security and potentially increased evictions among already disadvantaged and marginalized populations,” conclude Applebaum and Horecka. There’s not much relief in sight. If a pet is a specially trained service animal, it’s exempt from any and all extra fees no matter what a landlord might say; some emotional support animals qualify as well, though that classification is harder to come by than it once was. Various states are considering legislation that would give some landlords a state tax credit for allowing pets, thus expanding the pool of pet-friendly housing, and other laws that would prohibit pet fees, but actual movement is minimal. Some states, like California, forbid nonrefundable deposits of any kind, so any tenant should check local housing law. The animal welfare community has reached the long-overdue realization that human housing concerns are an important pet issue, but what that will mean isn’t yet clear.
What is clear is the real need for change. “More and more, people consider their pets to be part of their families,” says Horecka. “Market researchers tell companies that in order to sell to millennials, they must consider pets to be their children. If the evidence is strong enough to shape corporate policy, it’s certainly strong enough to shape how people should be treated where they live.”
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