Q: I work for a local humane society and was wondering about the rights of tenants to have pets in their rental unit. We frequently receive calls from tenants with pets claiming that they received a 30-day notice to terminate their tenancy because they have violated the "no pets" policy at their rental property. This also has happened with tenants that claim they are just feeding stray animals in the neighborhood. I can understand a landlord may have a policy against pets, but I have had calls about situations where a landlord suddenly changed his policy to prohibit pets after accepting them for years. That doesn’t seem fair. What do you think?
A: I think you have a valid concern about landlords that abruptly change from a policy of accepting pets to one of prohibiting pets for existing residents. However, I would support a landlord trying to enforce a "no pets" policy against tenants that claim they are only feeding stray pets. I understand and have compassion for the issue of stray animals, but there are potentially serious problems that can occur if a tenant is allowed to feed stray animals. If someone were to get hurt by this stray animal, you would find that no one would accept responsibility for the animal. The landlord could be sued if he knew that the pet was on the property.
Remember that the right to have pets is not one of the standard fair-housing-protected classes such as race, religion, creed, color, national origin, handicap, etc. A tenant that is in violation of a lease clause prohibiting pets would be subject to a 30-day (or 60-day if they are long-term tenants) written notice to terminate their tenancy. The only exception to a rule change prohibiting pets would be for tenants who have requested and been approved for a companion animal under the fair housing laws or the Americans with Disabilities Act. But only those qualified animals would be exempt. For example, a tenant may have a specific dog as a companion animal and thus the landlord’s new "no pet" policy would not apply. But that would not cover any pet or stray animal, and the tenant would have to remove any nonqualified pets from the rental property.
There is nothing to prevent a landlord from accepting pets and then deciding that he no longer wants to allow tenants to have pets. Personally, I think that this can be extremely unfair to current tenants who have pets and who cannot be expected to simply get rid of the family pet due to the landlord changing his mind and adopting a "no pets" policy. I do understand that there are occasions when the landlord becomes aware of a specific pet that constitutes a health and safety risk. In such cases I would agree that the landlord is acting reasonably and to insist that the tenant find another suitable home for the pet.
The landlord can also issue a 30-day notice of change in terms of tenancy on a month-to-month rental agreement with a new rule that no longer allows pets (just like they can change any other rules with proper notice).
If a landlord would like to convert his rental units to a "no pet" rental property, he should do it gradually. I suggest he immediately inform new tenants of his policy but that the current tenants should be allowed to "grandfather in" their existing pets with the understanding that no new or replacement pets are allowed. I think this is a much more compassionate approach than to simply send out a written notice demanding all tenants get rid of their pets in 30 days. While this scenario often occurs when there is a change in ownership, I would also suggest a phasing in of a "no pet" policy be used by the new owners as a common courtesy to the existing tenants.
Actually, tenants with pets are a great "target market" for landlords. Of course, you need to have the proper written agreements and increased security deposits to protect against damage and give the tenant an incentive to return your rental property in good condition.
While there are many horror stories about renting to people with pets, many landlords have had excellent, long-term tenants that have been extremely responsible and have kept the rental property in great condition and gladly paid for any damage at the end of the tenancy. I would suggest you assist your callers by keeping a list of local landlords that would welcome tenants with pets.
This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."
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