Housing Issue: Pets Not Allowed

Part 1: A Heartbreaking Dilemma

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Of all the email I receive, some of the most heartbreaking are those from people who are forced to give up their cats because of housing problems. Landlords will not allow pets or homeowner associations enforce rules limiting or disallowing pets, and someone is now forced to make a decision, often with little warning: give up their cat or try to find a new home. Many years ago, I was faced with the same dilemma. I was fortunate in that I had friends willing to take care of my cat until I was able to find another, more pet-friendly apartment.

Not everyone is as fortunate. In California, where I live, the Santa Clara Humane Society said that just over 26 percent of the cats and 25.9 percent of the dogs brought to the society's shelter from January to May this year were given up because of landlord demands. ¹According to researchers, if all rental housing units permitted pets, approximately 6.5 million animals could be placed in homes.

Face it, however, people who have to live in rental housing generally have to adhere to the landlord's rules, which in many instances include "No Pets." Fair or not, property owners have the right to enforce rules meant to protect their property against damage, and because of previous "bad pet owners," most owners of rental property have a legally-enforceable "no pets" rule. Although housing laws require a landlord to allow you "quiet enjoyment" of your home, this does not include the right to have pets, in most cases.

Help for Elderly and Disabled

One exception to this lies in the Federal Pet Law of 1980, which allows persons with disabilities and elderly persons living in federally assisted non-family rental housing to own or keep common household pets, including dogs and cats. Owners and managers may require a pet deposit and/or make reasonable rules for keeping of pets. Federal Fair Housing laws also prohibit discrimination against elderly and disabled persons living in HUD-assisted housing:

  • An owner/agent may not apply or enforce house pet rules developed in accordance with section 4 of this handbook against individuals with animals that are used to assist handicapped persons (e.g., guide dogs for persons with vision impairments, hearing dogs for persons with hearing impairments, and emotional support animals for persons with chronic mental illness).
  • The definition of "pet rules" under this act include: requirements to pay a refundable pet deposit, with allowances for a gradual accumulation, in some cases of the deposit; charges for pet waste removal for a pet owner who fails to remove pet waste; standards of pet care limited to those necessary to protect the condition of the tenant's unit; spaying/neutering a dog or cat; barring pets from specified common areas; limitations on the length of time a pet may be left unattended in a dwelling unit; control of noise and odor caused by a pet; and pet licensing in accordance with local or State laws or regulations.

Note that "disibility" as defined under these laws includes mental impairment along with other physical disabilities. The case cited in the next section is a good example.

Other local laws also disallow discrimination against the disabled. The City of Chicago enacted the Fair Housing Ordinance (FHO). In Santiago v. Soto, a mentally disabled tenant, Reinaldo Santiago, was prevented from owning a dog, which his psychiatrists said was necessary for his mental health, by the "Selection Committee" of the apartment complex where he resided. In finding for the Plaintiff, the Chicago Commission on Human Relations had this to say:

Even without reference to the regulations, the FHO must be interpreted as mandating that a landlord "reasonably accommodate" the special needs of a disabled person by removing barriers, such as a "no-pets rule" where it is necessary to allow a disabled person to use and enjoy their housing. The failure to accommodate, unless such accommodation would create an undue hardship on the landlord, constitutes "discrimination" on the basis of disability ...

The Commission finds that Reinaldo's need for a dog may be as important to him as a diabetic's need for insulin. Dr. Sanchez's letter of December 21, 1990 informed the respondent that Reinaldo had a mental disability and that his psychological condition would be greatly helped by having a dog. What degree of need must a disabled person have to merit accommodation ? The Respondent would have us rule that to justify accommodation, a Complainant must show that without the accommodation he would be completely unable to live in the housing. This is not the appropriate standard. A visually impaired tenant could live in housing without a support dog. A wheelchair bound tenant could conceivably reside in a residence which was not totally accessible. The real question is not whether disabled citizens should be able to overcome the barriers to enjoyment of their housing; it is whether the removal of those barriers will allow them to more fully and readily use and enjoy the housing.
Santiago v. Soto

The Commission finds that the Respondent violated the FHO by refusing to reasonably accommodate the mental disability of the Complainant.

Incidentally, Reinaldo not only was awarded the right to have a dog, but also reimbursement for legal fees, medical expenses, and a $25,000 judgment for "pain and suffering."

¹ HSUS "Renting with Pets"

Check County Laws and CC&Rs Before Buying

Contrary to the American Dream, or the old saying, "A man's home is his castle," home ownership does not always exempt us from discrimination. Homeowners' Associations may have CC&Rs limiting the number of allowable pets per household, or in fact, disallow any pets. The latter is more commonly found in condominium associations. It behooves a prospective purchaser of a home or condominium to request and carefully read all CC&Rs and other homeowner documents before making the commitment to buy. Otherwise you may later face a legal battle to keep your cats and dogs, which you may very well lose. 

Apartment Living With Pets
Ron Leshnower, our Apartment Living/Rental Guide, has written an excellent article on just this subject. I highly recommend reading it and even printing it out for future reference:

Many local humane societies, burdened by the intimate knowledge of pets surrendered for lack of housing, have compiled listings of pet-friendly apartments and rentals in their areas. I have put together a resource section of these listings, available in the links listed below. If you ever find yourself in this tragic situation, you may be able to find help with these resources. No one should ever have to give up a pet because of a lack of housing that will accept it.

Additional Reading