No Pet City: How Vancouver became Canada’s least pet-friendly city

The rental market is impossible. Landlords are unsympathetic. Stratas aren't helping, and neither is TransLink. Vancouver's pets are being abandoned. But it doesn't need to be this way

March 14, 2016

By Trevor Melanson / Photo: Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler

When a 10-year-old Geremy Arnold met Buddy, his new half-German Shepherd, half-Alaskan Malamute puppy, he would never have imagined that he’d willingly give him up one day. The two grew up together—through elementary school, through high school, through good times and bad—and when Arnold moved out eight years later, ready to take on adulthood, Buddy naturally came with him. But two years later, as often happens with young Vancouverites trying to make it in the world, Arnold had to move back in with Mom. To make matters worse, in his mother’s new place “she wasn’t allowed dogs.” Buddy was bounced around, staying at his aunt’s place and later with a friend’s parents. In the meantime, Arnold looked for a home that would take both him and Buddy—without luck. “I had come to the point where I needed a place, and any place would do,” he says. And so, Arnold did the unthinkable: he found a farm that rescued dogs and gave up Buddy. Weeks later, as Arnold spotted other dogs in his new building (grandfathered in prior to a pet ban), he decided to defy the rules and went to retrieve his old pal—only to find out it was too late. Buddy had been adopted. Eight years later, he says, “not a day goes by that I don’t think about him, if he was happy, or mad that I abandoned him.”

Arnold, who has since adopted another dog, says his experience isn’t unusual. He’s heard numerous tales from others just like him, who have found out the hard way just how unforgiving this city can be for renters with pets. “It really seems unjust,” he says, but in Vancouver, where over half of residents rent, landlords have the upper hand. There is simply more demand than there is supply, a fact reflected in Vancouver’s vacancy rate, which sat at 0.8 percent as of October 2015 according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. The national average for large cities, by way of comparison, was 3.3 percent. But if it’s bad for the average renter, it’s a whole lot worse for the average pet-owning one. Indeed, in a city where almost every rental specifies “no pets,” it borders on impossible.

This isn’t a secret, mind you. The City of Vancouver itself, which passed a motion in 2013 to investigate the matter, has acknowledged that pet owners face “extreme discrimination.” Yet the problem persists, and with ever-escalating real estate prices keeping more and more people in the rental market, it may very well get worse. That’s because making the legislative changes that would empower pet owners is a provincial matter, and the province hasn’t seemed very interested. “There are a lot of stakeholders involved with strong opinions,” says Amy Morris, policy and outreach officer at the BC SPCA, “and it’s challenging to effect change because there are people who oppose that change heavily.”

Morris would know. Most SPCAs don’t have someone in her position, a policy wonk who pores through databases and works with various organizations, every level of government, and the media to make B.C. a more pet-friendly province. Half of all the pets her Vancouver branch takes in (excluding transfers from other branches) are surrenders, and 45 percent of those surrendered pets were given up for housing-related reasons last year. Morris, 29, believes that lower-income renters suffer most. “There might be pet-friendly housing that’s above what they can pay,” she says, but “lower-rent places tend not to be pet-friendly.”

Geremy Arnold's first dog, Buddy
Geremy Arnold’s first dog, Buddy

While Morris lacked current local data on how many landlords refuse pets, a quick city-by-city Craigslist comparison was telling. Among a sample of roughly 600 rental units per city (taken November 20, 2015), the percentage of landlords who had checked both the “cats ok” and “dogs ok” boxes was far lower in Vancouver. While just 5.6 percent of landlords ticked both boxes here, fully 20.7 percent in Calgary, 15.4 percent in Montreal, and 8.1 percent in Toronto did the same. Of course, landlords that haven’t checked those boxes may still allow pets (and, in Toronto’s case, cannot actually ban them thanks to a provincial law), but it does suggest a lower level of pet friendliness in Vancouver. Morris says she certainly felt the pet-related pinch when she moved here from Montreal: “My partner and I had two dogs, and it was really tough to find housing—to the point where we ended up having to pay $400 more per month just to have a place that allowed two dogs.”

And it’s not just dog owners struggling to put roofs over their heads. Alannah Hall, board chair of the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association, says her organization was forced to change its answering machine last year because they were receiving too many calls from pet owners asking if VOKRA would take in their cats. “We were getting them every day,” Hall says. VOKRA only fosters feral and stray cats for adoption, however, and Hall says they’ve been noticing a disturbing trend of late. Not only do they receive more reports of homeless cats around the end of each month as people are moving, but increasingly the cats they’re rescuing are domesticated, not feral, which suggests they were abandoned. “We had a case where somebody just moved and left their cat in the apartment.” Hall, whose cat Max (“short for Maximus Purrus”) was found deserted in a trailer park, has a theory: “I think people are dumping cats.”

But if landlords keep saying no to animals, what can be done? The answer to that may lie in Ontario, which long ago amended its Landlord and Tenant Act to effectively declaw pet bans—even in cases where the renter agreed to one. Legally, there are now only three pet-related reasons a renter can be shown the door in Ontario: if the landlord or another tenant’s peace and quiet is “substantially interfered” with, if someone has a severe allergic reaction to the animal in question, or if the animal is dangerous. In Toronto, the one city that nearly rivals Vancouver in terms of the competitiveness of its rental market, pet owners were thrown a bone. And the result, 26 years after the pet-friendly changes to its Landlord and Tenant Act? According to Tracy Heffernan, a lawyer and provincial director with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, there have been “very few landlord and tenant decisions relating to problems with pets since the provision was enacted in 1990. This would suggest to me that there have been very few problems.”

None of this is news to Vancouver city councillor Tim Stevenson, who in 2013 began pushing for the city to follow in Ontario’s footsteps with the backing of Mayor Gregor Robertson. He says the issue was put on the back burner during the 2014 civic election and is only now remerging under the purview of the city’s rental advisory committee. “Unfortunately,” he says, “there’s nothing the city can do, as the powers live with the province. In Ontario, it was the province that changed the laws. It will have to be the same here in B.C., and so far they’ve shown little interest.” Once the rental advisory committee comes up with a strategy, he says, the City of Vancouver will formally lobby the province, a process he’s hoping will begin by summer.

Amy Morris's former pets, Pepinot and Winston
Amy Morris’s former pets, Pepinot and Winston

Of course, that process will have its enemies. David Hutniak, CEO of LandlordBC—the largest landlord association in the province with 3,300 members—says his organization prefers the current arrangement over the one they have in Ontario. “We’ve been actively involved in this conversation with the City of Vancouver, and the bottom line is it’s a financial issue.” Pet deposits, he says, are capped at half a month’s rent (plus the standard damage deposit every renter pays). If the damage costs more, it’s the landlord who’s out. How often does this happen? Hutniak says that while he doesn’t have hard data, his position represents the views of his organization’s members. As he puts it, “We’re not social housing, we’re market housing.” In that vein, he offers his own solution: build more rentals. “If there was a high vacancy rate, there would be more landlords open to pets—if it meant attracting tenants.”

But BC SPCA’s Morris doesn’t buy the argument that pet owners cost landlords more money. In fact, the opposite might be true. She cites a 2005 study from animal welfare nonprofit FIREPAW (perhaps the only major study conducted on this topic in North America), which surveyed American renters and concluded that there was, in fact, an economic argument to be made for appeasing pet owners: they stayed longer. On average, 46 months as opposed to just 18. That reduced turnover meant less advertising and fewer renovations for the landlord. As for damage, the study found that units with pets incurred about $40 more of it on average—far less than any pet deposit, and far less than units with kids, which generated an average additional bill of $150.

Landlords aren’t the only hurdle that Fido has to jump over, however. Stratas, which exist in every new condo building, are another. B.C.’s Strata Property Act limits the number of pets allowed to one per tenant: one cat or one dog, although tenants are allowed two birds and a “reasonable number” of hamsters or fish. The strata can amend this rule, but often, whether because of internal opposition or mere indifference, it does not. The result, Morris says, is that there are effectively two levels of governance a tenant has to deal with. “They have strata rules they have to follow and they have landlord rules they have to follow. I’ve found places where the landlord says, ‘I don’t care, but the strata cares.’ One place I found, for example, said, yeah, that’s fine, two dogs, and then I looked into the strata rules before I signed the lease, and the strata rules said, no, you can only have one pet.” The strata act needs tweaking, Morris says, particularly since many pet owners have two animals so that neither feels lonely when the humans are out and about. In fact, VOKRA strongly prefers it for their kittens—they ask that you adopt at least two of them.

Then there’s transit. You can’t take your dog on the SkyTrain unless it’s in a kennel, which means you can’t really take your dog on the SkyTrain unless you’re strong enough to carry it on there in the first place. This is not necessarily the norm, Morris says. Cities like Toronto, Calgary, and Seattle allow leashed dogs on transit, but not Vancouver. While TransLink makes an exception for guide dogs, many pet owners fall between the cracks. “I have a friend who’s in a wheelchair,” Morris says. “It’s not a therapy dog, so the argument is that the dog could be left at home, but when it comes to actually trying to get to a vet, it can be really challenging.” Morris’s war, in short, has many battles to be waged—not just against landlords.

Erin Ryan and Grubber
Erin Ryan and Grubber

In the meantime, how’s a pet owner to get by? Erin Ryan, a research coordinator for the BC SPCA who also happens to sit beside Morris—and whose long-haired tabby cat, Grubber, has been running around the office for the duration of our conversation—offers some advice. Every single apartment she’s moved into with Grubber (three in Vancouver and two in Victoria) originally said “no pets,” but she convinced the landlords otherwise. “We’ve had good experiences where landlords just tick the box that says no pets, but they haven’t said anything in the ad,” Ryan says. “Once they get an opportunity to meet us, we bring up the idea: would they be open to considering one cat? We treat it like a job interview. We come with a resumé, not just for us but also a pet resumé for Grubber, so they can get a sense of what she’s like, what it would be like to have her in the building, because she’s an indoor cat, she’s small, she’s well-behaved. We’ve even provided references for the cat.”

But even then, Ryan says, it’s not easy. “I would say that for every 10 listings we open, we’re closing nine of them because they blatantly say ‘no pets, no exceptions’ in the ad.” Her latest move, a five-month endeavour, was a reminder of just how difficult finding an apartment with even a six-pound cat can be, let alone a dog. In this market, human connections like the one she made with her current landlord have been her saving grace. “He was very stringent and asked a lot of questions,” she says. “We thought for sure he wasn’t going to call us back, but he did, and then he later said that he was also a pet owner. He had three cats in his North Vancouver home. There are people out there who understand the situation, and our landlord—we were lucky he was one of them.”

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