By Bailey Kennedy
Many people who would benefit from pet ownership and who would be fantastic pet owners are restricted from owning pets. Why? Because they are renters.
Policies that reliably allow renters to have pets could be a useful tool in promoting a happier, healthier population.
Getting a pet might be one of the best things you could do for your health. Pet ownership encourages people to be more active, which in turn can lead to benefits like improved cardiovascular and mental health. Conditions like anxiety, stress, and depression impact millions of Americans. Meanwhile, most Americans are falling short in getting enough exercise. Nearly two years of activity restrictions have done little to help this. Depression has exploded since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the conditions of the last year have led to a dangerous increase in obesity.
Pet ownership may present a partial solution to some of these crises. While taking a dog on an evening walk won’t magically solve any health issues, it would be a step in the right direction for many people.
However, pet ownership and its health benefits are much more difficult to access for a class of people who are already disenfranchised economically and politically — renters.
Renters generally are of lower-income than homeowners and are more diverse. Renting is also associated with higher rates of some health problems than home ownership. And homeownership is becoming a more and more difficult dream for young Americans to achieve. Accordingly, the numerous privileges associated with homeownership, including the ability to bring pets home, remain out of reach for many.
When pet-owning renters look for new housing, they may struggle to find pet-friendly apartments. Even many of the rental units that advertise themselves as “pet friendly” place restrictions on the pets that are allowed to live in the building. One study suggested that only about 9% of rental units are completely pet friendly — others place restrictions on the type and number of animals that people are allowed to own.
And many landlords charge a pet fee to owners who want to live with pets on a rental property. This might otherwise be understood as a discount for people who choose not to own pets. For very low-income renters, this discount might be the difference between being able to pay for housing or not.
Local officials in municipalities where a particularly high percentage of rental stock is pet unfriendly might consider adopting policies that would make pet ownership more feasible for renters. Low-income renters might see pet deposits subsidized if they are able to find housing that allows pets. Cities and states could also take steps to encourage universities — whose housing stock is less pressured by supply and demand — to allow pet ownership by students. Government-owned pet shelters could adopt a role as temporary housing for pets who have been displaced when their owners are pushed from housing that permits pets to housing that does not.
There is no perfect policy that could put pet ownership within reach of all Americans — nor does there need to be. Many Americans are happy without dogs or cats, and even some people who dream of puppies may not be particularly suited for pet ownership. And encouraging landlords to permit pets in their rentals probably is not a priority for cities where many people are struggling with extremely substandard housing. But, to the extent that policymakers can bring to fruition rental housing conditions that are amenable to pet ownership, they should strive to do so.