Building Owners Struggle To Balance Tenant Rights With Pet Ownership
Apartments are going to the dogs — and cats and other pets. That’s prompting more landlords to fetch legal advice.
As working at home in the pandemic led more apartment dwellers to adopt pets, landlords are now spending more time and money vetting who’s legally eligible for rent and other fee breaks — and double-checking the laws. That gets especially tricky when service and emotional support animals are involved, or when trying to handle disputes among tenants over pet-related damage and disruptions.
“I had a situation where a gentleman had actually been attacked by a dog and he had post-traumatic stress disorder because of that, and his next-door neighbor had an emotional support animal,” said Nashville, Tennessee-based attorney Jennifer McCoy, who handles landlord-tenant cases, in a panel discussion at the National Apartment Association convention in San Diego. “He could not live next door to that dog because he would have a PTSD attack every time he saw that dog.”
McCoy, who practices law in five states, said such situations may increasingly need to be addressed by letting tenants transfer to another part of the property at no cost to the renter. Other issues requiring more investment in screening include confirming the eligibility of tenants to bring in service and emotional support animals that don’t qualify for pet bans or mandatory fees and deposits.
Apartment landlords are navigating the challenges because they’re under pressure to stay competitive by being more pet-friendly. That’s especially the case because buildings are appealing to younger millennial and Gen Z renters, tenants who see pet ownership as an even bigger priority than their older counterparts who have moved on to single-family housing as they raise families.
Landlords’ potential legal and social land mines have increased now that more than 23 million American households, nearly 1 in 5 nationwide, have adopted a pet since the start of the pandemic, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“We’ve seen an exponential increase in pet ownership,” said McKenzie Towns, director of sales operations and marketing for Knoxville, Tennessee-based PooPrints, a company that helps apartments owners manage dog waste. Towns said before the pandemic pet owners represented about 40% of renters and now 60% to 70% have pets.
The National Multifamily Housing Council estimates that about two-thirds, or 67%, of U.S. households now have at least one pet, including about 25 million renter households.
Screening becomes especially important with lower-income subsidized housing, where government agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development are keeping close tabs on who’s being accepted or rejected at apartments based on pet ownership issues.
“All of our owners and investors expect us to act as the fiduciary,” said Victoria Cowart, education and outreach director for PetScreening, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based company that provides advisory services to multifamily property owners, including recommendations regarding prospective tenants with pets or assistance animals.
“You’re right there in the middle and how you do your work matters,” Cowart told an audience largely consisting of apartment property managers during the Apartmentalize convention this month. “Being consistent and following HUD guidelines will satisfy your owners and investors, and keep you out of trouble with the residents and the prospects on the other side.”
More pets mean more potential conflicts among renters that go well beyond barking and pet waste cleanup issues. They can include overflowing fish tanks causing water damage to neighboring apartments, severe allergies to pets owned by other tenants, and fears of animals by other people in the building that rise to the level of a disability.
In most states, only dogs are considered certifiable as service animals, trained for specific tasks to aid disabled or elderly renters. Under federal and most state laws, renters with service animals cannot be charged added pet-related fees, based on size or breed of the dogs, that could normally be charged to a person with a dog as a standard pet, and service dogs cannot be banned.
States have various policies as to what can be brought in as an emotional support animal, a more gray area that can require legal help. In most states, the renter must provide certification from a health professional that the animal is indeed needed for the renter’s well-being, otherwise a landlord can prohibit or charge extra fees for that animal to be in the apartment.
Each animal being brought into a unit needs to be confirmed by a healthcare professional as providing the stated service or emotional support. But panelists said vetting is complicated by a wave of emotional support certificates, pet identification tags and other unofficial documentation that tenants are bringing to rental offices that they got from websites and companies purporting to advise pet owners about rent requirements.
While there’s a hassle involved for landlords, it’s considered a growing necessity because renters want buildings that accept pets. That means property owners must be more vigilant about educating their leasing employees to maintain consistent policies and avoid raising their risks for reduced income, increased liability and rising maintenance and other expenses from not properly screening pet-owning renters.
Increasingly, avoiding those pitfalls by completely banning pets isn’t feasible. A 2021 national survey report, commissioned by Michelson Found Animals Foundation and the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, estimated that 2.5 million U.S. rental units house unapproved pets.
At an average rent of $600, that amounts to around $1.5 billion in pet fees and deposits that landlords could be collecting if they became officially pet-friendly.
This is especially true in attracting millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, and Gen Z renters, born from 1997 to 2012. Forty-two percent of 1,300 renters surveyed were Gen Z or millennial, and 48% of those said they were likely to adopt a pet in the next year, a higher percentage than their older cohorts.
Those younger renters are also most willing to provide additional information about their pets in the rental application process. Meanwhile, several apartment owners have reported financial benefits from easing their pet restrictions, including those regarding weights and dog breeds.
The 2021 report from the animal advocacy groups cited a case study involving The Management Group, an Atlanta-based multifamily property management firm that lifted those restrictions three years ago. TMG Executive Vice President Jamin Harkness said in the report that the firm has since seen pet residency rise from 40% of units to 70%.
Lease renewals at TMG properties increased from 50% to 80%, boosting annual net operating income by more than $160,000 because of lower unit turnover costs, as pet owners stayed put rather than facing a potentially long hunt for another animal-friendly complex.