Caroline Zambrano

The Pet Rental Crisis begs for better laws, keep families together and pets out of shelters

With an estimated 30.4 million pets and two thirds of households experiencing the joys and health benefits of having a companion animal¹, it’s no surprise we consider pets as family. Some people see their pets like their children.

In fact, according to a Suncorp bank study of people looking for their next home, more than half of Australians (51%) consider their pets more important than proximity to family (46%) and friends (39%) when buying a house.

The tragic reality is, however, that many pet owners are having to make the agonising choice between having a roof over their heads or keeping their beloved companion animal. This is because pet rentals are not regulated in many states, such as Queensland, Western Australia or Tasmania, where landlords are able to refuse applications with pets for no good reason.

According to rental property website Rent.com.au, less than 10% of rental properties are advertised as pet friendly – contributing to thousands of animals being surrendered every year!

In Western Australia, Marlene Beveridge had no choice but to surrender her beloved family cat to the shelter after not being able to secure a pet friendly rental in Perth when moving house to accommodate her growing family.

Indie was Marlene’s ‘foster failure’ from SAFE Newman (Saving Animals From Euthanasia Inc) and came to her in 2016 “agitated, unsettled and not a fan of humans,” but eventually warmed up to the family, including their dog Red.

“Indie was very loving toward our family. He loved the kids and just liked to be around them. He would let them pull his tail and pat him and never seemed fussed,” said Mrs Beveridge. “I knew Indie loved us very much because he didn’t like any other humans outside of our family. He would come and sit and watch TV and always just wanted to be amongst the business of family life. We adored his beautiful nature.”

When another baby was on the way, the Beveridge family needed more space where they lived in Karratha and decided to move closer to Perth. They searched for months to find a suitable pet friendly property, including with family members, whose landlords either did not permit pets or they could only take their dog.

“I can’t explain the amount of anxiety we felt trying to find a pet friendly rental,” said Mrs Beveridge. “I know many landlords are sceptical of letting tenants have animals, but we always respected the owner’s rules regarding pets and kept their house in immaculate condition even though we had pets… I feel if landlords were more open to pets, people like myself would be more than happy to do whatever it takes to respect rules and to even pay the extra pet bond required.

“It is known that children who are raised with animals develop less allergies and I think that is very important to have that exposure and be comfortable around animals. Pets become a part of your family and bring so much joy and happiness to any activity and give you another sense of purpose. Red and Indie are the most beautiful souls; you never feel alone when you have pets. They bring you peace and comfort.”

Earlier this year, the family moved to Perth and had no choice but to surrender Indie to SAFE WA.

“I felt so guilty that I had put my cat in this position. I was meant to take care of him and now I didn’t know what to do or where to take him. And to be honest, I despised people who gave their animals up because they had to move,” said Mrs Beveridge.

Pet rental crisis not just in pandemic

The reality is that Australia has been facing a rental crisis with increased demand and low supply, creating an unprecedented surge in housing prices – even before the pandemic. Thousands of Australians face being pushed into homelessness as the nation’s rental affordability reaches an all-time low, according to the Anglicare Rental Affordability Snapshot (August 2020), which highlights the lived experience of looking for housing on a low income.

The rental crisis is proving an extra challenge for people who have companion animals, forcing some into homelessness because their pets are not welcome, and others to rehoming their animals to improve their chances of finding a place to live.

Queensland single mum Tina, her nine-year-old daughter Hannah and their beloved cat Dottie (all names changed for privacy), lived out of their car for three months after not being able to secure affordable pet friendly housing.

“During the months of instability living in our car, Dottie was one of the only things that helped Hannah through this period,” said Tina. “We were actively applying for rentals and moving about sleeping in our car. Hannah was not attending school during this time.”

Tina reached out to St Vincent de Paul Society Queensland, who were able to quickly find them transitional accommodation, but not for their family cat. So, Dottie went to stay with a foster carer with the Animal Welfare League Queensland’s Emergency Boarding program. This alleviated much stress for Tina; however, Hannah was extremely distressed about being separated from her best friend.

Recently, they were fortunate to secure long term accommodation with a community housing provider in partnership with the Department of Housing and Public Works, which has a newly built pet-friendly block of units.

“Without the wonderful support provided by AWLQ for Dottie, we would not have been able to accept the transitional accommodation offered,” said Tina. “We can’t wait to move (to our new pet friendly home) and have Dottie back with us, where she belongs.”

Pets need to be more readily accepted in crisis accommodation

Tui Gordon, a family support worker from St Vincent de Paul Society Queensland’s Ipswich Accommodation Support Services, deals with many families who are homeless or at risk of being homeless, desperate to keep their pets with them.

“Our clients who are homeless and have pets find they are a great comfort and sometimes the only constant in their life, also the only thing that loves them unconditionally,” she said.

Ms Gordon explained that the Ipswich region already has a shortage of emergency crisis accommodation and a huge demand for rental properties from people moving from interstate, pushing prices up and tightening the availability of rentals in the market. Imagine how much harder it is for pet owners, she said.

“There are many families that require the assistance of services to look after their pets; not all of them have family who can take them in for them if they get temporary accommodation,” she said.

“The AWLQ have been fabulous to work with in getting pets cared for in the short term. But unfortunately, pets are often needing care for a few months not weeks and there is a shortage of long-term care available. I would love to see pets more readily accepted in rentals and crisis accommodation.”

Pets not in the census

How can we encourage pet friendly tenancy laws when pets were not even included in the 2021 national census? The census is meant to be a snapshot of who we are and tells the story of how we are changing by providing insights into our current economic, social and cultural make-up. The information and data also help create government policies and plan for the services we need.

Trish Ennis, National Executive of Companion Animal Network Australia – CANA (formerly Animal Welfare League of Australia) is greatly disappointed pets are not included in the 2021 Census.

“With pet ownership increasing and resulting in demand for more pet friendly policies, the information gathered about pets could be used in guiding government policy relating to companion animals and making our communities more pet friendly,” she said.

CANA is a registered charity representing the companion animal welfare work of member organisations including Animal Welfare League QLD, Animal Welfare League SA, Lort Smith (VIC), Sydney Dogs and Cats Home, Dogs’ Homes of Tasmania and Saving Animals From Euthanasia Inc (WA).

The organisation celebrates the human-animal bond and promotes responsible pet ownership through national campaigns, partnerships and initiatives, such as the Rent with Pets program. The program aims to increase awareness around the surrender of pets to shelters due to difficulty finding pet friendly rental properties.

“Monthly statistics from our members tell us there are far too many surrenders strictly based on rental issues, across all age groups. We know this causes mental health issues for humans, as well as disruption and separation anxiety for their pets,” said Ms Ennis.

“As rents rise, it’s going to become a bigger issue (to find pet friendly accommodation). We want to work toward better rental laws in each state to support responsible pet owners and create a national law similar to that of Victoria, ACT and NT. It’s going to save money, save lives and avoid a lot of stress.”

Ms Ennis explained that many landlords and managing agents have a ‘no pets’ rental tenancy policy because they may think it’s easier to manage a property without pets or the pets might cause damage.

“We know that a well-managed pet-friendly rental can deliver great economic outcomes for those willing to introduce a ‘pets considered’ policy,” she said.

For instance, pet owning tenants are generally willing to pay more rent, pet friendly properties rent faster and reduce your advertising spend, and responsible pet owners can make excellent tenants and want to hold longer leases.

“Renting to more pet owners reduces animal euthanasia and results in better animal welfare and outcomes for tenants and landlords,” she said.

Rent with Pets website provides information, advice and resources to support tenants and landlords to be responsible pet owner tenants and welcoming landlords, and encourage pet friendly rental laws.

“With the added challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to create a more pet friendly Australia,” said Ms Ennis.

Moving towards pet friendly cities

Sydney’s member of the NSW Parliament, Alex Greenwich also wants a pet friendly Australia, inspired by his 13-year-old rescue dog, Max, a most affectionate pooch with a lot of personality.

“Living with Max in an apartment community, seeing the importance to my mental health and wellbeing, has motivated me to make sure there are laws that are appropriate and are welcoming to companion animals,” said Mr Greenwich.

“People are increasingly renting in city areas, and lack of clarity in the law around companion animals in apartments has led to many costly legal battles to resolve disputes. We need to change the laws within rentals to make sure unfair barriers aren’t put up.”

Mr Greenwich, in collaboration with the Animal Justice Party, successfully introduced reforms to provide that clarity for the benefit of animals, pet owners and apartment communities. From 25 August, the NSW Government’s new laws put an end to blanket bans on animals in strata.

Pet bans will not be permitted except in a few limited circumstances where the keeping of an animal would unreasonably interfere with another resident’s use and enjoyment of their home or common property. For instance, if you are subletting a place and have an allergy to cats, most people would say it’s fair to say no to someone with a cat.

The regulations will define these circumstances following consultation in line with terms set out in law, said Mr Greenwich.

“We got a positive response from the strata community (to the new laws). The concern was people were seen as either cutting through the blanket ban versus free for all. The heart of the decision making was the welfare of the companion animal,” he added.

In relation to renting in NSW, there is no term in the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 that prohibits you from keeping a pet, or that requires you to ask for your landlord’s consent before you keep a pet. However, many landlords will include a clause restricting pets in the lease agreement, and there is no specific ban on them doing so.

Mr Greenwich said he supports changes to NSW’s Residential Tenancies Act 2010 to allow pets in any rental property, with owners able to request a pet ‘bond’ to cover any damages, as occurs in Victoria. He submitted petitions to Parliament calling for reform (closed in August 2021).

Snapshot of Australia’s rental listings and comparison

In August, Pet Industry News found 134,320 rental properties advertised on Realestate.com.au nationally (including apartment/units, villas, houses and townhouses). We then searched for pet friendly rentals using the filter ‘pets considered’ and the number dropped to 7,610.

This means, whilst 65% of our population has pets, only 5.6% of all rental properties in Australia are advertised as being pet friendly.

Let’s compare this to Switzerland, which has the highest percentage of renters in the world at 56.6% and 41% of the population has pets.

In a search of a popular rental website Homegate.ch for pet friendly apartments in all of Switzerland, we found 33,093 rentals listed. When we added the ‘pets’ filter – clicked DOGS and CATS (they only had the two options) – and the number dropped to 8,253.

Result: 41% of the Swiss population has pets, but 24.9% of rental properties allow pets.

Pets strengthen communities

Research shows the benefits of pet ownership extends beyond the owner and can help strengthen the social fabric of the local community² .

Associate Professor Lisa Wood from the University of Western Australia’s School of Population and Global Health and Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Social Impact was the lead researcher in a study into the social benefits of pet owners. The study showed that people who owned a pet had higher social capital than non-pet owners.

In the Living Well Together handbook (designed to assist decision makers tap into the ‘power of pets’), A/Prof Wood says “pets act as a lubricant for social contact and interaction, and pet owners had elevated perceptions of suburb friendliness. Even among people who didn’t own pets themselves, pets were seen as a conversation ice-breaker and to contribute positively to people getting out and about in their community.”

The study showed pet owners were more likely to exchange favours with neighbours, to be involved in community issues and to have higher levels of social capital. Pets also appeared to ameliorate some determinants of poor mental health, such as loneliness.

“The connection between pets and social interaction and social capital suggests that the domain of a pet’s influence can extend beyond its immediate owner and home turf, to have a positive ripple effect on the broader community,” says A/Prof Wood.

Besides pet playing a role in motivating their owners to be more physically active (which in turn has a flow on benefit to health and reduced burden of disease at the community level), they also inspire volunteering, community involvement and programs to support people with special needs, she adds.

It is so true what A/Prof writes: “When you create a neighbourhood that’s friendly to dogs, it’s friendly to people, too”.

For resources for tenants and landlords, including a state-by-state guide to the laws around pet ownership and rental properties, visit www.rentwithpets.com.au or your state tenancy union via Australia’s National Association of Tenant Organisations (NATO).