Bay Area Animal Shelters See More Owner Surrenders Due to Housing Crisis

Chavo, a 1-year-old terrier mix, was surrendered to San Francisco Animal Care and Control when his owner was evicted. He was eventually adopted from the SF SPCA. (Susan Cohen/KQED)

Rose could be anywhere from 10 to 12 years old. The stray Chihuahua showed up one day in Amanda Smulevitz’s Oakland neighborhood, and the woman eventually took the dog in. A few years later, Smulevitz adopted Lily, a soon-to-be-6-year-old of the same breed, saving her from a home where she'd been mistreated.

A retired and disabled mother of a special-needs son, Smulevitz has lived in Oakland for almost 50 years. But she was forced to leave her pet-friendly apartment earlier this year, when the building’s new owner refused to give her a new lease. Though she qualifies for Section 8 housing, after months of searching, Smulevitz still hasn’t found a place to live, let alone one that will accommodate her two dogs. For now, she and her son sleep on friends’ living room floors. Rose and Lily sleep with strangers.

“I was the lady in the neighborhood who was always fussing at people, ‘Oh, I’d never give up my dogs just because a place didn’t take animals, and I’d find another place,’” Smulevitz said. “But I’ve eaten my words a hundred fold now.”

As the Bay Area’s housing crisis worsens, many animal shelters across the region have seen a recent uptick in owner surrenders -- mostly dogs, but also cats and other pets. Finding affordable housing is hard enough; finding affordable housing that accommodates pets can be impossible.

No Solid Answers

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After getting priced out of San Francisco, Lisa Bassi moved to San Pablo, the only place where she could find affordable housing that would accommodate her three dogs. She now commutes to her job as the client contact center manager at the San Francisco SPCA, where she fields calls from pet owners dealing with the same types of problems.

Currently, housing woes are responsible for a  quarter of all surrenders at the SF SPCA, making it the single most common reason for giving up a pet. Most of the surrenders come from residents in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point and Mission neighborhoods, where Zillow reports a 17-20 percent rent increase since this time last year.

Over the last year-and-a-half, the SF SPCA’s Surrender Division has worked hard to keep pets and owners together, diverting about 30 percent of the calls they receive. If a pet has behavioral issues, they can provide training resources and hopefully solve the problem.  But “for housing, it’s tricky because there just isn’t a lot out there,” Bassi said. “We don’t have any solid answers or solid help.”

Instead, the best the SF SPCA can offer is well-worn advice: Check Craigslist for pet-friendly housing and try to re-home with family or friends. The organization's Krista Maloney suggests preparing a “pet resume,” complete with description, photos and references from past landlords who can vouch for the animals.

“It sounds crazy, but we’re in a really crazy market right now,” Maloney said.

At the San Francisco SPCA's client contact center, operators field calls from owners facing pet surrender.
At the San Francisco SPCA's client contact center, operators field calls from owners facing pet surrender. (Susan Cohen/KQED)

In the East Bay, Rebecca Katz heads up Oakland Animal Services, the city’s public shelter. Compared to last year, Katz says, there’s been a significant increase in the number of animals surrendered to the facility, particularly from East Oakland owners.

OAS is now at 200 percent capacity. The shelter’s resources and staff are stretched, but “at the end of the day it’s better than the alternative, which is putting animals down that deserve a chance,” Katz said.

While Katz can’t point to hard statistics as to why owners are surrendering their pets, she says she hears from many owners who blame their housing situation.

“Oakland is going through changes, while in many respects are great, for every action there’s an opposite and equal reaction. And the reaction here is people are losing their homes and having to give up their animals.”

Like at SF SPCA, when it comes to housing, there isn’t too much OAS can do for pet owners. Sometimes it can offer to hold the animals temporarily. As a firm believer in the health benefits of pet ownership, Katz encourages owners to look into having their pets prescribed as emotional support animals when appropriate, which, under the Fair Housing Act, would prevent landlords from keeping the animals out.

OAS is also working to educate landlords on the benefits of renting to pet owners, who Katz believes “will be more responsible and steady because it is so hard to find housing.”

“Really the best we can do is just be empathetic and really not have any sort of judgment,” Katz said. “It’s a really hard place to be in. It’s not the pet’s fault, it’s not the pet’s parent’s fault.”

Amanda Smulevitz is having a hard time finding that kind of empathy as she looks for new housing, but she admits she’s been luckier than most people in her position. With months to prepare before she had to move out of her apartment, Smulevitz found foster homes through PALS East Bay. Among other goals, the nonprofit assists struggling pet owners who are trying to keep their animals, sometimes providing financial assistance for temporary boarding.

“I can say this anecdotally: Amanda’s story is pretty common,” said Nicole Perelman, director of PALS and a volunteer at OAS. “I definitely think there’s something going on in the wider Bay Area ecosystem, just in terms of the economy and the housing market.”

PALS regularly puts out calls for pet-friendly-apartment leads on its Facebook page, and it keeps a word-of-mouth list of dog-friendly buildings, especially ones that allow large breeds. But there isn’t much else it can do.

“It’s tough even for people who don’t have pets and have means to find a place to rent,” Perelman said. “So if you’ve got pets, it’s a strike against you. If you’re someone like Amanda and you’re low-income and you have pets, then you’re really in trouble.”

Holding Onto a Miracle

For now, Smulevitz keeps tabs on Rose and Lily through Facebook, where she’s connected to their foster parents. But so far, her housing search has not succeeded. Smulevitz has turned up only a handful of places that would accommodate her Section 8 voucher plus her pets. Some had weight limits, others would only allow one in the household.

“I came to terms months and months ago that it’s possible that I might not be able to live with my dogs again or with any pets, which is not a place I ever envisioned myself being,” she said.

And she’ll have to act soon. Lily’s foster parents are leaving the Bay Area, and there is a family in Walnut Creek eager to adopt her, leaving Smulevitz with a difficult choice to make.

“Do I want to surrender her completely and let someone adopt her or keep holding onto a miracle?” she says. As hard as that decision may be, ultimately, she admits the best thing to do would be to let Lily go. That way, she can at least focus on trying to keep Rose.

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“[Lily’s] up there in Walnut Creek in a place I’ve never been able to afford to live,” Smulevitz said through tears. “She’s living better than me and my son have ever lived. Might as well let her have that.”

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