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California Bill Would Require Landlords to Accept Pets

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Merika Goolsby with her dogs Goldie (left) and Max in front of her home in Oakland on Feb. 15, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

A San Francisco lawmaker introduced what’s believed to be first-in-the-nation legislation this month that would require California landlords to accept pets.

The bill, AB 2216 by Democratic Assemblymember Matt Haney, is currently a spot bill with details to be fleshed out in the coming weeks and months. Haney said the intention is to bar property owners from asking about pets on applications, prohibit additional monthly fees for pet owners — or “pet rent” — and limit pet deposits.

The legislation, which is sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States, is aimed at solving a big problem Haney said he sees in the rental world: an overabundance of tenants with pets and a shortage of landlords willing to accept them.

“A two-tiered system that punishes people for having pets, or treats them differently, or has a greater burden on them just for that fact should not be allowed in the law,” Haney said.

Haney’s staff analyzed Zillow apartment listings and found that 20% of San Francisco apartments allowed cats and dogs of all sizes, while 18% of those in Sacramento and 26% in Los Angeles did. Survey research finds that two in three households own pets nationwide, and 72% of renters report that pet-friendly housing is hard to find.

Property owners, however, are already expressing concerns about the proposal. Krista Gulbransen, executive director of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, said her opposition comes down to risk: Pets have the potential to damage property, she said, and limiting owners’ discretion to take on that added risk while stripping them of the pet deposit safeguard puts them in a terrible position.

“The biggest concern is just not being able to make that determination of risk and make a decision based on that,” Gulbransen said.

Merika Goolsby with her cat Josie in her home in Oakland on Feb. 15, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Haney said exceptions would be made for landlords with a reasonable rationale for excluding pets from their properties, such as health and nuisance-related allowances, as long as owners can provide written documentation to a judge or rent board if a tenant contests the policy.

“[Landlords] can’t just say, ‘No pets allowed,’” he said.

It would be a welcome change for Oakland renter and tenant advocate Merika Goolsby, who struggled to find property owners who’d accept her with three small dogs. Goolsby is an alternate member of the Oakland Rent Board and sits on the state board of the tenant advocacy organization Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

“There were very few places that were pet friendly, and those that were pet friendly wanted pet rent, plus a pet deposit, plus only one pet allowed,” she said. “At one point, I thought I was going to be living in my car with my pets.”

Goolsby went as far as creating resumes for her small dogs, listing their behavior classes and vaccinations in an effort to win over landlords. When she finally found one who’d accept her, she had to put down an additional $500 pet deposit and pay $120 a month in pet rent.

“The rent was already high,” she said, “and the pet rent definitely didn’t help.”

Goolsby now has four dogs, seven cats, a fish and a bird. But Haney said his legislation would likely limit the number of pets landlords must accept and allow landlords to require pet liability insurance. Details on how many pets would be covered under the bill are still being worked out.

“What we see too often is just these blanket prohibitions of pets with no good reason for it, with no required justification for it and no protection of pet owners, who represent the majority of California’s renters, to be able to access housing just like anyone else,” Haney said.

A sign hangs in Merika Goolsby’s home in Oakland on Feb. 15, 2024 (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Jenny Berg, California director for the Humane Society of the United States, said added fees and outright bans contribute to an overcrowding crisis at animal shelters in California and nationwide.

“One of the reasons that people relinquish their pets is because they can’t find affordable housing or housing at all that can accommodate their pets,” she said.

Gulbransen was relieved to hear the law only applies to common household pets — she heard an anecdote about a tenant who tried to pass off a tiger as a large cat — but is otherwise dismayed by the possibility of more regulations.

She said property owners are reeling from the stack of new local and state laws approved in recent years.

“When you put them all into a package, it’s so rife with possibilities for errors on the part of the landlord,” Gulbransen said. “That makes people think twice about renting out that empty unit.”

Plus, she said the state already has laws in place to protect renters with disabilities or mental health issues who rely on emotional support or service animals.

Three of Merika Goolsby’s cats (from right), Fred 2, Pantha and Trinity, in her home in Oakland on Feb. 15, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

But Julia Howard-Gibbon, supervising attorney at Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, sees room for improvement. Many renters with assistance animals aren’t aware of their right to request exceptions to policies prohibiting pets.

“Or sometimes they do know, but the landlord really pushes back on that,” she said, noting that property owners sometimes request unreasonable documentation or otherwise make the process unnecessarily onerous.

Oftentimes, Howard-Gibbon said landlords simply reject assistance animals outright. A 2021 investigation (PDF) by Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California found that 55% of properties with “no pets” policies they surveyed were unwilling to grant reasonable accommodations for people who need assistance animals.

Haney’s proposal could fix that, Howard-Gibbon said. “It would remove all of these barriers that they face in getting these reasonable accommodations, even though they currently have a right under the current law to access them.”

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She said not having to disclose pet ownership up front, as Haney’s bill proposes, could prevent landlords from using other pretexts to deny pet owners, including those with disabilities.

“We want a renter to be considered first and a decision made about whether they meet the requirements for an apartment,” Haney said. “And then, after that fact, they disclose that they have a pet. And only if there’s a reasonable rationale to deny them, that would be allowed.”

Haney’s proposed legislation builds on other efforts in California to open apartments to pet owners and follows other states that have taken similar steps. In 2022, the Humane Society successfully passed a bill in California requiring residents to be allowed to own pets if they live in certain types of affordable housing developments built after January 2023. And Colorado last year capped pet deposits at $300 and pet rent at $35 or 1.5% of the tenant’s monthly rent, whichever is greater.

Haney chairs the Legislature’s Renters’ Caucus, and the proposal is the latest in a series of housing-focused measures he’s proposed. Last year, the governor signed legislation he authored that caps security deposits to one month’s rent. His proposed pet bill clarifies that pet deposits are included in that cap.

“We’re not going to solve our housing crisis if we continue to allow for no protections for pet owners who represent the majority of our tenants,” he said. “This is simply about access to housing.”

Haney said he wants to work with stakeholders to shape the legislation. “We’re open to having a dialog with landlords, of course, about everything in the bill.”

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