For too long, pet owners have been locked out of the rental market, but the drive to make the Tenancy Act fairer promises to open new doors, writes Jen Vuk.
Tim* and his pure-bred staffy, Max, were a fixture around Norlane, a northern suburb of Geelong, on Victoria’s west coast where the two lived.
Tim had a bad heart and was quick to tell people that Max knew him so well that he’d know what to do if anything happened to him.
But all was not what it seemed. Tim and Max were homeless. When Tim presented at Salvation Army Housing Victoria (SAHV) in Geelong back in 2011, he told staff that he’d had been kicked out of his flat some months earlier and had been living in his car.
It was later discovered that Tim had been told to vacate his premises because he had a dog, and dogs were definitely not welcome.
With Australia boasting one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, Tim’s story is, unfortunately, far from unique.
According to the latest statistics, 63% of Australian households own a pet and there are more than 25 million pets in the country.
And yet when it comes to rental properties, many landlords frequently put a ‘no pets’ clause into rental agreements resulting in many law-abiding pet-owning renters being locked out from more-desirable and affordable properties.
But this may be about to change. Last month, RSPCA Victoria was invited to make a submission to the Victorian Government’s inquiry into tenancy laws after ‘the ownership of pets in rental properties was identified as a key issue for consideration as part of this process’.
It’s all part of State Government’s drive to make its Residential Tenancies Act ‘fairer and safer for all’.
And the good news is that ruling may well set a precedent for other states. Speaking to Fairfax last month, Real Estate Institute of NSW president John Cunningham said that ‘despite the absence of any pet-relevant changes in NSW residential tenancy laws, any amendments that passed in neighbouring states could have a flow-on effect’.
As it currently stands a ‘no pets’ clause effectively forces animal owners ‘to surrender their animals to RSPCA, in order to get into the rental market or when moving to a new rental property’.
Last financial year alone, more than 700 animals were surrendered to RSPCA Victoria shelters because the owner was unable to take their pet with them to their new home.
And the sense of loss is felt most acutely among families already struggling to keep a roof over their heads, according to SAHV, which secures appropriate housing for its clients.
SAHV casts its net far and wide when scouting for housing options, such as crisis, transitional and long-term accommodation, including community housing, as well as outreach support to help people remain in their community or their own homes where it’s safe to do so.
For too long the ‘no pet’ clause simply added another hurdle in an environment that has become increasingly difficult for service users and agencies. (In NSW, Qld and the ACT, The Salvation Army Homeless and Accommodation Services assist individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.)
As part of its recommendations, RSPCA Victoria argues that tenancy agreements should automatically include a provision for tenants to keep pets, with some clear checks in place to protect the owners’ financial interests in their properties.
‘Simple changes to the current act would substantially improve the welfare of pets and their owners, without creating unreasonable risk or onerous management requirements for property owners,’ RSPCA Victoria chief executive Dr Liz Walker told Fairfax.
Crucially, the changes would also make it unlawful to ban a future tenant who needed a guide dog or had an approved need for a service animal such as a support dog.
While a transitional property came up in Norlane and Tim was able to move into that, Max had to be surrendered to the RSPCA.
But, fortunately for Tim (and Max), SAHV was able to secure a dwelling for both of them prior to the change in tenancy agreement. Using a case by case approach, SAHV managed to make a case for Tim and relocate him and Max into the property where both of them fitted in well with their neighbours.
Finally having secure accommodation meant that Tim no longer felt vulnerable. He regularly visited the housing team in Geelong to say hello with Max in tow, and also annually attended Christmas lunch, where he would sit outside with Max underneath the table enjoying a home-cooked meal.
In April this year, Tim’s neighbours advised SAHV that Tim had passed away. His heart had finally given out.
The neighbours mentioned they’d found it a little strange that they hadn’t seen Tim for a few days. The only reason they thought to contact SAHV was that something hadn’t seemed right with Max, who, they could see, was alone at the window staring forlornly out into the street.
Just like Tim had said. Max had known what to do, after all.
*First name used to protect identity.