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Pet-Loving Tenants Dogged by Obstacles

July 08, 2001|CLARA YOUNG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chances are if you have a pet and you're looking to rent in Southern California, you have landlords hanging up on you.

That's what happened to Roy Bissember, who came from Napa Valley to open a martial arts studio in Los Angeles. He went through tons of listings and ads, but no landlord would talk to him when they found out he had two dogs named Satan and Sabbath.

"The minute I told them I have a pet, I'd hear a dial tone real fast," he said.

Jackie Chang, a Torrance teacher who has two dogs and one cat, knew what it would take for her to find an apartment. So she spent three months developing a rental package to present to potential landlords that included resumes for each of her pets, recommendations from past landlords, verification of flea control, vaccination records, training and behavioral certificates and testimonials.

"It's crazy, but this is what you have to do to find housing in L.A. if you have a pet. You really don't have much of a choice," she said.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, one of two renters owns a pet, and there are more people with pets than with children.

Currently, there are no laws protecting pet owners unless they live in federal housing. Owners of private properties can impose written and unwritten conditions regarding pet allowance.

"It's really one of the last areas of housing discrimination," said Martha C. Armstrong, vice president of the Humane Society. "You can't keep people out on the basis of race, sex, religion or age, but you can if a perfectly lovely family has a dog."

According to a number of landlords surveyed by the Humane Society, they are leery of renting to people with pets because of liability concerns and the potential financial loss.

They think it's bad business to allow pet owners in their buildings. And with the recent surge of headlines about dog attacks, many landlords worry about lawsuits.

"There's a huge misconception by the landlords," says Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles. ("If you restrict dogs and cats in the apartments, you're cutting out a huge proportion of the market and most pet owners are willing to pay ... more in rent and put down a larger security deposit. And there are far fewer dogs biting people than people attacking people."

"Most landlords are afraid of the physical damage [to property]," says Jane August, manager of August Properties in West Los Angeles. "They don't understand that the problem is not the animals. Ninety-nine percent of the time, humans are the problem and not the dog or the cat. I've had human tenants destroy property, run off without paying rent and leave behind filth like you wouldn't believe.

"But the most damage I had with a pet was easily fixed by replacing the carpet, which came out of the security deposit. And, I was never sued regarding a pet. Letting pet owners in is very profitable."

For one landlord, allowing pets became a necessity. "When the market was down, I couldn't get the building rented out and I almost went under," says Jean Steele, president of Steele Management in Los Angeles. "So I rented to pet owners and discovered they made better tenants all around. All you need is a pet addendum to the lease, a security deposit and pre-screening. All my tenants are pet owners now and they are more responsible than non-pet owners. I have a sense of security in my building. It's ... good business."

According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, moving and landlord issues are the top two reasons why pet owners relinquish their dogs or cats to the animal shelter.

The Humane Society of Los Angeles says if all rental-housing units permitted pets, about 6.5 million animals could be placed in homes.

To find housing that permits pets, many owners are turning to dog-friendly and specialty brokers.

One place to find pet-friendly listings and a sympathetic ear is Pets and People Homefinders in Los Angeles.

"I had a budget and a pit bull named Jake," says Bonnie Formia, president of Pets and People Homefinders. "I couldn't believe how hard it was. I got ripped off from so-called rental agencies, and when I finally found a place nine months later, it was overpriced."

So Formia founded Pets and People Homefinders, where every listing welcomes pets.

SPCA Los Angeles and the Humane Society of the United States also provide listings and programs to assist pet owners, offering tenant guides and sample resumes, as well as information about obedience training.

They assist landlords with pet policies for condominiums and apartment buildings and have samples of pet addenda, rental agreements, pet applications and registration forms.

Many real estate brokers are also developing listings just for pet owners.

"There are many resources out there," Bernstein says. "It's up to the pet owner to get information that will make them desirable tenants. After all, one bad experience can turn a landlord against pet owners."

Clara Young is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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