Federal disability law recognizes what most pet-keepers already know: our furry friends provide valuable emotional support. That’s why certain animals are afforded protection in rental housing. But most pets are not officially designated as service or support and we depend on landlords choosing to accept a pet. Here are a few tips to help Fido or Feline find a home in our new apartment.
Landlords Have Wide Discretion
The law allows the landlord discretion as to whether any tenant (or none of them) can keep a pet. He can restrict dogs by size or breed; allow cats or not; and he need not provide a rationale for his pet policy. A neighbor can be allowed a pet but we may not be. Unfortunately, state housing law says little about the keeping of animals and the Beverly Hills rent stabilization ordinance is silent too. (The Municipal Code does restrict animals to domesticated species only.)
Even if the landlord allows the keeping of an animal, he may impose a monthly charge and demand an additional pet deposit (unless the keeping of the animal is related to documented need). However the entire deposit cannot total more than two months rent inclusive of any pet deposit. (Read more about deposits.)
Often the challenge is simply getting Fido through the door. And here lease templates often used by landlords are not helpful. They include default restrictions on the keeping of animals. For example here is one relevant provision from the Apartment Association lease template:
Animals/Water Beds/Musical Instruments: Renter shall not bring or keep any animal (dog, cat, bird, reptile, etc.), liquid-filled furniture or musical instrument on the Premises, unless noted in Section N of Owner’s copy of this Agreement or as noted in writing signed by owner.
How did an animal-keeping provision get mashed up with a waterbed regulation? Who knows? The important thing to know is that all lease terms are negotiable. When asked a landlord may waive the restriction. Once the lease is signed the terms continue for the duration of the tenancy. (Unless the landlord decides to change a term!)
Negotiating the Pet
The key to getting a pet over the transom is to secure the landlord’s agreement up front. Any pet restriction should be stricken from the lease. Here are a couple of suggestions to getting Fido in through the front door.
- Offer a pet deposit. Know that it stands apart from the standard deposit under the law, so it can only apply to pet damage. The landlord cannot lawfully withhold the pet deposit for a dispute unrelated to the pet.
- Offer ‘pet rent.’ Some landlords will demand it anyway, but if you offer it you are showing some good faith. Know that the pet rent is separate from the base rent; it should not be incrementally increased whenever the base rent is increased. (Regardless, never allow pet rent to be folded into the base rent and then subsequently certified as the lawful base rent for the apartment. Always ensure it is separate from the rent.)
- Provide pet references from a prior landlord. Have a look at this sample pet resume and put Fido in his best light!
- Come prepared with a pet agreement. It shows that you’re a knowledgeable and conscientious future tenant. Have a look at a sample pet agreement and craft your own. If nothing else it is a conversation-starter.
- Provide any certification(s). Can you show that the animal is trained? Tuck it in the mandatory folder that contains the dog’s license, up-to-date vaccination history and whatever else may be persuasive. It shows you are a responsible pet keeper!
These and other strategies are available in the helpful Every Dog’s Legal Guide from Nolo Press (which is available in the Beverly Hills library).
Also be clear on the landlord’s pet policy. The landlord may allow a dog, for example, but impose a weight restriction. That can add stress to the tenant-landlord relationship later if a barking Fido calls attention to himself. If the landlord does not ask if there is an animal in tow, the prospective tenant should raise the issue proactively.
Busted for Keeping a Pet in Violation of the Lease?
Violating the terms of the lease is a serious offense and it is grounds for termination. A 3-day correct-or-quit notice can be served for keeping an undisclosed pet! And it may mean the animal has to go. At least the courts tend to see it that way. That is why it is always best to get straight with the landlord about the animal before move-in!
But there are a few scenarios where the circumstances make a difference. Maybe the animal has been resident for some time without a problem and the landlord newly discovers it. Or the landlord tacitly permitted the pet with no objection but then changes his mind. In these cases it is challenging for a tenant to contest a new prohibition but it is not impossible.
The tenant who resides with an animal known to the landlord (or the landlord’s agent) may be able to demonstrate that the landlord did know and is only now enforcing a prohibition. Documentation of his knowledge could include emails or texts that reference the animal. Alternately an affidavit from a neighbor about the landlord’s tacit permission could make the case that the landlord has casually applied the terms of the tenancy and the judge may invalidate the termination.
Also, a reasonable claim of retaliation because of a prior disagreement, say, could show bad faith on the part of the landlord. The law takes retaliation seriously once it reaches the courtroom, and retaliation is an affirmative defense against the unlawful detainer.
However it is best to avoid a court proceeding if at all possible. Often the disagreement can be resolved in mediation, which is a service that the city funds for tenant-landlord disputes. It is a good first step. Call the rent stabilization office at (310) 285-1031 and ask for a referral.
The Reasonable Accommodation
In lieu of a dispute getting to mediation or even the courtroom, the tenant should consider approaching the landlord about obtaining a ‘reasonable accommodation’ to keep the animal. Reasonable accommodation is exactly as it sounds: asking the landlord to bend the rules because the tenant has a special need to keep a pet.
The law doesn’t require the landlord to accept the animal, but only that he consider a ‘reasonable accommodation’ if it will not put an ‘undue burden’ on him or his tenants.
A reasonable accommodation entails highlighting a “special need” in contrast to the Americans with Disabilities Act’s “substantially limiting” condition standard for disability. The tenant need not provide the landlord with a specific description. It should suggest the relationship between the disability and the need for an emotional support or companionship.
Often a letter from a doctor, psychological professional and even a therapist will suffice. The letter should explain how the landlord’s accommodation will enhance the tenant’s ability to enjoy her home. Proof of animal training or certification is not required.
The key to reasonable accommodation is the good-faith argument. Most landlords will acknowledge the tenant’s concerns because they don’t want to face a discrimination complaint. (Refer to this overview of the complaint process).
We refer a tenant who is considering the reasonable accommodation approach to consult Nolo Press’s Every Dog’s Legal Guide. It is available online and in the Beverly Hills library.