December 3, 2022

Pets

pets keep it coming

Thousands forced to give up cats and dogs because ‘only 5% of landlords allow animals’

7 min read

When Ryan Davis moved in with the woman who would later become his fiancée, he promptly fell head over heels – with her dog.

Mr Davis (which is not his real name) moved from London to Southend in early 2020 to spend lockdown with his then-girlfriend and her dog at her mother’s home. Reflecting on the bond he formed with his new canine sidekick Mr Davis says: “I fell in love”.

Not everyone was so smitten with the five-year-old cross-breed, however – a fact that quickly became apparent when the couple began searching for a home to rent with their four-legged charge.

“We probably looked at 20 or so places – only two would consider dogs,” Mr Davis says.

The couple reluctantly left their dog with Mr Davis’s soon-to-be mother in law, where she will stay until they can afford to put down a deposit on a property of their own. They join tens of thousands of other renters who have been forced to give up a much-loved pet to secure a place to live.

In January 2021, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as it was then known announced an update to its recommended contract for landlords in the private sector that seemed, at first sniff, to herald an exciting development for animal-loving tenants.

Under the revised model tenancy agreement, landlords in England would no longer be able to issue blanket bans on pets by default. Instead, they should only reject prospective candidates with pets in tow “where there is good reason”.

This, the Government, declared, would mean “responsible tenants…with well-behaved pets” would be able to find a place to live more easily than under the old rules, when only 7 per cent of private landlords advertised pet friendly properties.

Landlords, the guidance promised, would be “protected”, with tenants having a legal duty to repair or cover the cost of any damage to the property caused by their furry, feathered or scaly companions.

You might expect the number of adverts stating “pets allowed” to have shot up thanks to this new, pet-friendly approach. Yet nearly 18 months on, the proportion of rental property ads indicating that pets are permitted has shrunk, to just 5 per cent, according to lettings platform Goodlord, which analysed data from more than 1,000 letting agencies.

The Government’s solution to renters being forced to choose between their family pets and a roof over their head had one major flaw: the contract is entirely voluntary.

“Renting with pets is unbelievably, shamefully hard,” says Holly Brockwell, who runs a small shelter for elderly, ill and disabled cats from her Nottingham home.

The thought of seven cats – the number that Ms Brockwell was looking after when she moved last year – lolling around their property might alarm even the most compassionate of landlords.

But, Ms Brockwell, 36, insists: “I had a solid track record of renting with no deductions from my deposit, I had £10,000 worth of insurance in case of animal damage to the property, and I was fully willing to negotiate rent.”

All that appeared to count for nothing. “The first 30-odd landlords and lettings agents I spoke to gave a blanket ‘no’ with no negotiation whatsoever. Several actually hung up the phone,” she says.

“I was only able to rent my current home because, in addition to pet-specific damage insurance, I offered 25 per cent more than the house was on the market for, and agreed to replace all carpets when I move out regardless of what condition they’re in.”

Ms Brockwell enjoys a good relationship with her landlord, but, she says, “convincing anyone to consider me over similar professionals with no pets was expensive and stressful”.

She adds: “I had exactly the same problems when I only had two , and indeed when I didn’t have any but wanted one. The agent said, ‘If you’re telling me you’re going to have a cat, I’m going to rent to someone else.’”

A key piece of legislation brought in with the intention of protecting tenants from unscrupulous landlords and letting agents demanding pointless payments has compounded the issues faced by renters with pets.

The 2019 Tenant Fees Act, which bans landlords and letting agents in England from charging tenants “administrative fees”, came as a welcome relief to countless renters who had been stiffed by such charges.

The law prohibits landlords and agents from forcing tenants to take out insurance through a third party – including for accidental damage caused by pets – and caps tenancy deposits at five weeks’ rent where the annual rent comes to less than £50,000. Consequentially, landlords fearful of damage to their properties have become increasingly jittery about allowing pets.

AdvoCats, a voluntary organisation that provides free advice and practical support to tenants and landlords around pets, is pushing for an amendment to the act that would allow landlords to request a capped pet deposit or stipulate pet damage insurance is held by any tenant who wishes to keep a pet. The cause has won the backing of numerous industry stakeholders, including the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA).

“We recognise the importance of pets in providing companionship especially to those living on their own…[but] there is often more of a risk of damage to a property where there is a pet,” says NRLA policy director Chris Norris.

“We are calling on the Government to enable the level at which deposits are set to be more flexible to reflect this greater risk [and] for tenants to be required to have pet insurance or alternatively, to be able to pay landlords for this.”

The mental health benefits of pet ownership are already well documented. Less frequently discussed is the emotional, physical and mental cost of separating owners and their animal companions.

The damage can be significant, says Elizabeth Ormerod, a retired veterinary surgeon who now serves as chair of the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS).

Over her 40 years in practice, she witnessed many tragic situations – but the “most distressing” involved “people who were being forced by landlords to relinquish their pets or to face eviction”, Dr Ormerod recently said in a blog post for SCAS.

“The anguish… is immense, the scale is enormous.”

In 2017 John Chadwick, a vulnerable pet owner from Maidstone, Kent, requiring temporary emergency accommodation, took his own life after being told he would not be allowed to bring his two beloved dogs and cat with him, and that he would be deemed “intentionally homeless” if he refused the flat offered to him. He gave up his pets, who were described by a friend as his “lifeline” and died 10 days later. At an inquest, a coroner concluded the loss of Mr Chadwick’s pets was a key factor in the decision to take his life.

“People in rented accommodation who have to choose are really struggling… We know a lot [of relinquished pets] are euthanised,” says Sandra McCune, a SCAS trustee.

Allowing owners and pets to stay together does not just mean a happy outcome for the tenants and animals concerned – research also indicates that the NHS stands to gain financially. A 2016 study carried out by the University of Lincoln that Dr McCune was involved with estimates that pet ownership saves the NHS up to £2.45bn annually, mainly as a result of fewer visits to the doctor and improved mental wellbeing among owners.

It might sound counterintuitive, but landlords could reap some rewards too, according to Dr McCune. Tenants with pets tend to stay for longer as they know they will struggle to find another home, reducing the chances of a property standing vacant and saving landlords advertising costs, she says.

Many landlords remain apprehensive, however. It’s just easier to avoid all of that hassle if you can,” says one portfolio landlord who own properties in London, Guildford and Portsmouth.

While he has a strong preference for tenants without pets, the landlord, who asked not to be named, says he will allow them if the only alternative is an empty property.

He and his wife have recently given a student group at one of their properties permission to bring a dog with them but, he says, “if there had been an identical group without a dog we probably would have taken them.”

In his opinion, pets are a “luxury”.

“I have sympathy of course [for pet owners struggling to find a home] but these are things one has to think about when one gets a pet,” he says.

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AdvoCats co-founder Jen Berezai accepts that some “hardline” anti-pet landlords will never be swayed but she is optimistic that the group’s “middle-of-the-road compromise” will win over the majority: “An awful lot of landlords are open to having their minds changed,” she says.

“The pandemic heightened what it’s like to feel lonely and isolated, probably to people who’ve never felt like that before. It made a lot of people wake up to the value of pet companionship.

“If we can solve the financial risk problem, there is pretty much a moral obligation [for] landlords to be open to pets. There are a lot of people renting longer than ever before. If they can prove they will be responsible they have a right to own a pet where humanly possible.”

@kt_grant