by Leslie Wilson
Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers
Creating A Pets in Rental Housing Program in Your Community
"My landlord won't allow pets." Anyone who's worked in an animal shelter has heard these sad words too many times from people being forced to surrender animals or from those who wish they could adopt a pet.
One of the simplest and most important things the humane community can do to boost adoptions and keep animals in the homes they have is to work with landlords and tenants to increase the number of rental units that allow companion animals.
Below is a simple, field-proven guide that groups or individuals can use to create a program for increasing pet-friendly rental housing in their area.
STEP 1: Assess the Problem
Different communities have different problems and needs. It's important to take a look at the specific situation in your community to maximize the effectiveness of your program. Keep in mind that you don't have to do everything at once: start with strategies that are easiest to implement and will meet with the most success. From there, you can continue to build and modify your program.
To get an overview of the problem in your community, do the following:
- Listen to tenants. What kind of help do they need? Do they have more dogs or cats? Tenants can give you an excellent overview of the rental market in your community, and their concerns and experiences with landlords can help determine how your program will be structured.
- Talk to local landlords and property management companies to find out what their concerns are. Let them know that you are developing a program to help them. Ask if they manage units that allow pets, and if so, what makes their policies successful. If they don't allow pets, find out why. Remember, talking to property owners and managers now will also give you valuable contacts for your later outreach efforts.
- Review rental ads. What types of pets generally are and are not allowed in your community's rental market? Are there particular neighborhoods with more "pet friendly" listings than others? If so, you may want to use this information to help convince other landlords in the area to accept pets as well.
STEP 2: Create Written Materials
The next step is to create written materials for both landlords and tenants. In addition to any concerns your calls uncovered, landlords are generally worried about property damage, complaints from other tenants, and how to screen for responsible pet owners. Tenants need to know what property owners and managers are looking for in a pet owner, how to advocate successfully for themselves, and where to find pet-friendly rental listings.
By working cooperatively with landlords, The SF/SPCA found that property owners, like all businesspeople, are interested in the bottom line. They were interested to learn that responsible pet owners generally stay in a rental longer and are more conscientious about caring for the property than non-pet owners. Landlords can generally request additional security deposits (within certain legal limits) from pet owners that more than cover any increased risks. And perhaps most importantly, pet owners are often willing to pay higher rents for pets-okay rentals. A pet-friendly policy can increase a landlord's income and bring them larger numbers of applicants when they have vacancies - giving them a competitive advantage over the many landlords who don't allow pets.
Whether you start from scratch or use another organization's materials as the basis for your own program, you will want to adapt your program to suit your community's needs. Here are some general ideas:
- List any services your organization offers to prevent or solve "pet problems." Low-cost or free spay/neuter, dog training, animal behavior classes, grooming services, and dog daycare are a few examples.
- Endorsements. Remember when you made contact with landlords and property management associations? Talk to them again to let them know how the program is going and to ask if they'd be willing to endorse it. If they agree, mention the endorsements in your materials. If they are especially supportive, ask if you can include a short quotation in your literature. For example: "I think it takes a responsible person to properly care for a pet, and I think that responsibility extends to their taking care of the property...I've had pets here since I bought the building, and I've never had any problems." -R.S., landlord.
- A "Frequently Asked Questions" sheet. Your written materials should answer tenants' most frequently asked questions and give them practical advice for convincing landlords to say yes to pets. For example, it helps to bring up the subject of pets in person, rather than over the phone. Offering to sign a pet agreement and to pay an additional deposit can also persuade a landlord to accept pets. The Open Door Tenant's Guide includes many other tips and strategies.
- Sample "Pet Resumes." A pet resume is one of the most effective tools tenants have in advocating for pet friendly rental policies. A pet resume describes the pet's best features and "credentials" - training, references, and a description, like this one from a sample pet resume: "Bingo is a friendly, well-behaved dog who is accustomed to apartment life. He is mature, calm, and easy going."
- A response card. Gathering feedback from people who receive your materials can provide new ideas or help you refine what you already have. You can also ask people to report success stories, which can make great material for promoting the program down the road. In fact, it's a good idea to begin building up a list of tenants (and landlords) with "happy endings" as soon as possible. Be sure to get a current phone number, and ask for permission to share their story with the media or in publicity pieces.
- Consider offering services to tenant groups. These services could include problem-solving seminars, responsible pet owner classes, or on-site dog training.
- Consider offering services to landlords. Do you have staff members or volunteers who can answer questions from landlords on this issue? If so, be sure to mention this in your literature.
STEP 3: Start a Referral List
Every tenant who calls your program will want a rental referral list. After all, when looking for a new rental, it's much easier to start with places that already allow pets. A referral list is also a great service to offer landlords - they can list their vacancies for no charge, and they know these tenants will have received your materials on being a responsible animal guardian. Your list will be small at first, but don't worry - it will grow, and over time, your list will become a valued resource in the community.
Here's how to get listings:
- Start by having a volunteer look through newspaper rental ads, compiling those that say "pets ok." Make contact with the landlord, and let them know they can call you next time they have a rental available. Don't forget to send them your materials!
- Ask pets-okay landlords if they have any other vacancies about to come up. Many people own more than one rental property.
- Create a flyer describing your referral list service and send it to every property management company, large pet-friendly apartment complex, and property owner association in town. Have volunteers follow up with telephone calls asking for listings and describing your program.
- Ask others to help spread the word. If you have built a good relationship with property management associations or landlord groups, ask if they will send a notice to their members letting them know about your listing service.
- Ask tenants who call your program if their current landlord allows pets. If so, ask them to suggest that the landlord list the vacancy with you.
STEP 4: Reach Out To Landlords
Once your materials are ready, it is time to get them into the hands of people who need them. You can reach landlords in a number of ways:
- Send information. To get addresses for free, contact your county tax assessor's office and request the addresses for property owners in areas that have high numbers of rental units. You may also be able to purchase mailing lists from landlord associations. Consider including a cover letter signed by a supportive landlord or realtor association representative.
- Place ads in landlord-oriented publications. Approach your local apartment owners' association, property management association, and realtors' association and ask them to place ads or run articles about your program in their magazine. Perhaps they will send a flyer describing your program to their members. This is where your previous contacts can come in handy.
- Present your program at landlord forums. Property management agencies and real estate groups often hold informational meetings for their members. Offer to attend as a guest speaker on the issue of pets in rental housing. Bring plenty of copies of your materials!
- Follow up with the people you talked to previously. Be sure to send your information packet to any organization or individual who helped during your planning process or officially endorsed your program.
- Offer your materials to apartment finding or rental listing services. They have contact with both landlords and tenants.
STEP 5: Reach Out To Tenants
Often, the best person to convince a property owner to allow pets is a current tenant who the landlord knows and trusts. Armed with a little information and experience, each tenant who contacts your organization can become an effective spokesperson for pet-friendly rental policies.
Here are some ideas for reaching out to tenants:
- Display your materials where tenants go. Provide your materials to tenant organizations, apartment finding services, and roommate referral services.
- Display your materials where adopters go. If your organization has mobile adoption outreach sites, be sure to display your materials on pets in rental housing. Many of the people who stop by to see the animals cannot have pets where they currently rent.
- Let your volunteers know about the program.
- Give informational speeches to tenant organizations. Share your tips for success and let them know how to address landlord concerns about allowing pets.
STEP 6: Publicize your Program
The key to a successful pets in rental housing program is people knowing about it - especially property owners. Your initial outreach to landlords and tenants will undoubtedly start bringing in the calls from people needing help. But there are more ways to spread the word:
- Write an article about your new program for your organization's magazine or newsletter. Include any success stories or pet-friendly "landlord profiles." Make a special appeal to members who own rental property, asking them to allow pets and to list with you next time they have a vacancy.
- Contact the media. Local newspapers and television stations are usually interested in animal stories and local housing issues. You've got a story with both. Write a press release describing the plight of a particular pet and their owner searching the city for a place to rent. Show how your program found the pair a home. Try to give reporters a personal angle to work from, as most write their stories that way. This is the time to use those success stories you've been gathering. Be sure to get permission before you share a landlord's or tenant's name and phone number with a reporter.
Call local television and newspaper reporters, especially those who have done pro-animal articles in the past, and describe your story. Fax them a press release or a pitch letter. Don't forget to pitch your story to the real estate section of your local newspaper.
- Put your documents on your website. This can cut down on printing and mailing costs, while giving landlords and tenants instant access to your materials.
- Contact other websites. Get in touch with local websites that focus on animals or rental properties and ask them to include a story or ad about your program. If you have your materials on-line, ask them to link to it.
- Advertise. Consider taking out an advertisement in the real estate section of your local paper. Some papers have discounted rates for non-profit agencies.
STEP 7: Expand Your Program
Once the basics of your pets in rental housing program are in place, you can expand it to new issues. Following are some ideas for additional projects:
- Encourage pet-friendly apartment complexes to raise weight limits or increase the number of pets allowed. Many larger dog breeds have lower activity requirements than small dogs. Write an article on the subject for your organization's magazine. Perhaps your local apartment owners' association will place it in their publication. You can also write an article or flyer on the behavior benefits of having two pets instead of one, showing how pets with companions are often less likely to engage in destructive behavior than solitary pets.
- Assist with pet deposits. One group's pets in rental housing program helps low-income pet owners with pet deposits. The organization loans the tenant the amount of the deposit, which the tenant can then pay back for as little as $5 a month.
- Adapt materials for condominiums and townhouses. Rules and regulations for condos and townhouses are usually determined by either the developer or a board of directors. With minor modifications, you can develop pro-pet materials for these types of housing developments as well.
For Pets, Homes Mean Life
You will be surprised at what a pets in rental housing program can accomplish with just a few hours work each week. In San Francisco, one of the toughest rental markets in the country, The SF/SPCA's program opened over 900 rental units to pets in a single year. Additionally, a survey taken after the first year of the program showed that rental units allowing cats in San Francisco increased from 33% to 55%, while "dog friendly" units jumped from 11% to 29%.
Pets in rental housing programs tackle one of the root causes of pet homelessness in a positive way, helping to establish your group as a valuable resource for the community. By working cooperatively with landlords and tenants, we can increase the number of people who adopt and retain pets - and move one step closer to a no-kill community.
Leslie Wilson helped plan, develop and implement the nation's first pets in rental housing program in 1990 in her role as Community Organizer at The San Francisco SPCA. Leslie is currently a special projects consultant for several humane organizations in northern and southern California.