The modern Australian family is more diverse and complex today than it has ever been. A shared characteristic however across the majority of Australian households is the family pet. From the humble dog or cat to goldfish, axolotls, terrapins and budgies – even the odd alpaca here and there – two thirds of Australian homes today count a pet as a part of their family unit. Pet ownership is not only a way of teaching kids about responsibility and the various life cycles we all must go through, it’s also a key tool in the mental and emotional wellbeing of millions of Australians.
Having a pet however is not all heart emojis and sunny Saturdays in the park. For the many pet owners who don’t own their own home, the value of the pet as a family member becomes even more evident when faced with the prospect of losing them. This is a reality faced by thousands of pet owners who face set back after setback, trying to find a pet friendly rental property. Sadly, in many cases the difficult choice has to be faced – finding pet friendly housing for the family becomes so difficult that owners are eventually forced to give up their pet. The solution to this is in encouraging landlords to be more pet friendly. According to 2017 figures from the RSPCA, almost 405,000 dogs and 54,000 cats were handed in to shelters, with 20,000 of those animals euthanized due to lack of alternative placement homes.
The connection between these figures and the rising number of people downsizing from houses to apartments cannot be overlooked. With strict residency rules in many strata properties, finding a home if you have a pet can be disheartening and in many cases fruitless. State legislation around the country hasn’t always helped, with blanket bans the norm on any kind of pets – an outdated policy given that a goldfish uses its allocated space in a property quite differently to a Doberman for example. This all started to change late last year however, when the Andrews Government in Victoria changed rental laws to give tenants the right to have pets in their rental property. It’s convention for most real estate agencies to discourage pets as part of the lease, and many landlords believe they have the right to refuse pets just ‘because they want to’. With these new laws however, a landlord must present a reasonable argument to VCAT – within 21 days of being advised about the pets – as to why the tenant can NOT have the pet, for it to be included as part of that tenant’s lease.
Rather than the previous situation, where a property listing would state ‘no pets’ and then the tenant would have to specifically request permission and plead their case, the new laws now give tenants the assurance they have the right to have the pet and it is not a disqualifying factor when it comes to looking for a rental property. Landlords still need to provide consent, but with good reason if consent is refused, and a landlord could increase the bond to cover additional damage that a pet may cause. The changes to the legislation recognise that the tenancy market has changed considerably with more people renting than ever before, as well as recognising that pets are an essential part of any family unit. It’s an important move in ending discrimination against renters with pets. In most cases pets are less of a risk to damage to the property than children but they are yet to be legislated against – of course!
This legislation is yet to be rolled out in other states of course, so Victoria will become the test case for other governments. NSW however has started to make some changes on a case by case basis, with the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal rejecting pet exclusions from strata schemes in specific apartment blocks around Sydney, in favour of claims from tenants with pets. For now, other states can still add ‘no pets’ clauses to their tenancy agreements, unless the pet has been classified as a disability or companion animal, for example an assistance dog for people with special needs such as autism, or those suffering from PTSD. Western Australia has also applied a specific ‘pet bond’ set at a maximum of $260 which is paid by tenants along with the normal bond, to cover fumigation costs and repair costs from pet damage, at the end of the tenancy.
Real estate agents also have a responsibility on this issue too and First National Real Estate has been the only Australian real estate brand so far to take a deliberate position on tenants with pets, leading up to and as legislation changes have been announced. People in strata schemes have all manner of reasons why they would prefer an animal to NOT live in their building, yet First National argues that issues arise with only a small number of pets and that for the most part pet owners are more responsible and therefore more desirable tenants than most. “It’s actually a misconception that people who have pets are not the best tenants” explains CEO of First National, Ray Ellis. “Because they find it so difficult to find a property, when they do find one they look after it better … and they actually make very good tenants.“
The primary issue here is about the rights of residents over the rights of animals in many cases. Often the complaints from residents are about allergies, noise from barking dogs or fighting cats, smells from animal waste or safety concerns. These are all legitimate complaints and each one can be handled by the tenant and the landlord, during the tenancy. Residents can provide medical certificates as proof of allergies, tenants can implement solutions such as no bark collars or day care for their barking pet and keeping their property clean is a condition of their lease so that is easily managed. Animals that appear threatening or intimidating should be muzzled or kept away from residents – for example taken out alone in a lift when leaving the building, rather than with other tenants.
The existing legislation however, is subliminally making the case that the Australian rental market believes euthanizing an animal is justification for avoiding the potential of residents being disturbed or physically impacted, rather than the reality of that happening and being dealt with. First National’s position came out of recognising the hypocrisy between the rising numbers of animals being euthanized and the numbers of tenants with pets not being able to find property. Their immediate solution was to offer a ‘Pet Friendly Search’ for rental properties on their website and to also provide resources to landlords about how to best encourage and support tenants with pets.