‘Oh, I’m looking after my girlfriend’s dog again while she’s at work’; ‘I think that cat lives next-door and it keeps coming in every time I leave the backdoor open’ – just two of the excuses I routinely used when I had both a canine and feline companion when living in rented accommodation and the owner of the property turned up unannounced. Keeping quiet about one’s benefits was one thing – ‘No DHSS’ was something landlords were allowed to state in the same way they’d once infamously stated ‘No Irish, no dogs, no blacks’ – but pets were the ultimate no-no. That said, I lived in three different premises with my cat and dog and wasn’t officially entitled to have either of them whilst living there. Some landlords were more tolerant than others. A landlady I had over 20 years ago insisted on collecting the rent in person and would call every Thursday evening at the same time; but she didn’t just take the money at the door; she’d come in, sit down and natter. Throughout this weekly endurance test I’d have to make sure the cat was out and I’d ask a friend to sit in the kitchen with the dog, bribing him with treats to prevent him from barking.
Potential damage as well as the noise – and possibly odour – of animals appears to be one reason private landlords have always had a downer on them; and, to be fair, there are plenty of irresponsible pet-owners who don’t empty the litter tray and don’t take the dog out for a walk when it needs to do its business. As a pet-owner myself, I was permanently conscious that I wasn’t adhering to my rental agreement by having them and did my best to guarantee they didn’t disrupt the lives of other tenants; but I would’ve attended to my pets’ needs even if I’d bought the property, and the dog barking whenever the doorbell rang would still have been something I’d have attempted to discourage. Not all pet-owners are so conscientious, of course, and I suspect these are the ones to blame for the rest being tarred with the same unfair brush by the majority of landlords.
According to the latest stats released by rental platform Goodlord, just 5% of landlords today allow pets to be kept by tenants renting their properties; when one considers just how essential pets can be in providing the lonely or the socially-challenged with companionship, it seems especially mean. Landlords will tend to fall back on the reasons already mentioned if they’re opposed to pet ownership on their property, and if faced with a choice between a tenant with pets or one without, they’ll usually opt for the latter every time. And even money can’t swing it. A story emerged recently that a far-from skint prospective tenant offered a landlord £3,300 a week for a penthouse apartment for which the landlord was asking £3000, simply because the prospective tenant in question had four dachshunds and figured offering to pay more than the asking price might override any objections; in the end, the landlord accepted a lower offer from a pet-free tenant instead.
However, all this could be about to change. In the past couple of weeks, a white paper has been published to address some of the issues faced by renters. The long-overdue abolition of the contentious ‘no fault’ Section 21 evictions is proposed – this is the system whereby a landlord can give notice to a tenant to leave the property without first providing a reason for the eviction – and not before time; 22% of renters who left their homes in the past twelve months did so without it being their choice. But the Renters Reform Bill also attempts to allow tenants the right to have pets in their rented homes, the first time this will be enshrined in law. No longer will landlords be able to specify those with pets will be barred from renting from them; and, as someone who spent the best part of 20 years living in rented accommodation with one pet or another – and being acutely aware of the risks I was taking – I cannot help but welcome these changes. Considering the boom in pet ownership spawned by the unique conditions of lockdown – and the belated realisation of what a difference a cat or dog can make to those abruptly deprived of social interaction with other people – this is something that needed to be addressed.
If I’d been threatened with eviction whilst a pet-owner, I would’ve found somewhere else to live rather than part with my four-legged friends, and a survey by the Deposit Protection Service recently revealed 30% of pet-owning renters had done precisely that of late. This bill nonetheless includes a caveat for concerned landlords, all the same; reports indicate Housing Secretary Michael Gove plans to grant powers to landlords so they can request their pet-owning tenants have insurance in the event of any damage done to the property by their pet, something that has eased the worries of the National Residential Landlords Association – particularly as landlords are limited when it comes to the amount of a deposit they can hold onto as insurance against pet damage; the Tenant Fees Act of 2019 restricts that amount to five weeks’ rent. NRLA representative Chris Morris said, ‘Our biggest concern has always been that the law, as it currently stands, prevents landlords requiring insurance to cover the significant risk of pets creating damage to a property. We welcome reports that the Government has listened and responded positively to our concerns.’
The Renters Reform Bill will also extend the so-called Decent Homes Standard into the rented sector for the first time, apparently guaranteeing renters the right to a ‘safe and warm home’; as someone who has never rented property with central heating, I look forward to a winter in a ‘warm’ home, though how this bill will make my home warm is a tad vague. Anxious landlords receive additional eases to their concerns with a promise that the bill will enable them to evict antisocial tenants or renters who are wilfully failing to pay rent in ways that are far easier than the rules currently in place allow. But tenants are liberated by the changes too; rogue landlords will face unlimited fines if they don’t live up to the standards expected of them. ‘This is all part of our plans to level up communities and improve the life chances of people from all corners of the country,’ said Michael Gove. ‘Too many renters are living in damp, unsafe and cold homes, powerless to put it right and under the threat of sudden eviction. The New Deal for renters will help to end this injustice, improving conditions and rights for millions of renters.’
Considering 4.4 million households constitute the private rented sector, finally tackling some of the iniquities prevalent in the system is one of those rare occasions when it’s possible to applaud this Government for actually doing something good. The Decent Homes Standard places a legal obligation on landlords to improve properties in such an insanitary state that they affect the physical and mental health of tenants; this will also cut the best part of £3 billion’s worth of Housing Benefit a year that finds itself in the pockets of these rogue landlords, as well as sparing the NHS from the £340 million it annually forks out for in order to treat the ill-health of tenants hospitalised due to the dire conditions they’re living in. Also, disputes between tenants and landlords are to be kept out of court by the intervention of a new Private Renters’ Ombudsman – what a wonderful word that is, Ombudsman (one of the few Scandinavian ones to have settled into modern English, apparently); he will settle such disputes quickly.
But it is the section of the Renters Reform Bill covering the ownership of pets in rented accommodation that will probably register with the most people. For far too long, the healing effects of domesticated animals on their owners has been effectively criminalised by the renting system; the odd bad apple in the barrel shouldn’t brand all pet owners as ‘problem tenants’ and it’s about time this antiquated discrimination was finally outlawed. Looks like that time has come.
© The Editor