When Rachel needed to escape her abusive, ice-using partner, she couldn’t. Or at least not for many weeks, because that’s how long it took her to find a landlord who’d also accept her small dog, Treacle. She looked at more than a dozen places (taking hours off work for each inspection, time she’d have to later make up) before lucking on one who agreed to the dog.
All this made Rachel’s brave escape far more difficult, costly and stressful than it needed to be. And although Rachel wasn’t in fear of physical violence, many women are. And many are forced to stay with dangerous men because they can’t find a new home that will also welcome their precious animals. Animals that are so important for the companionship of women who need to leave, and even more so for comfort and continuity for their kids.
Unfortunately, Rachel’s story is common. With house prices booming, the percentage of Australians who own their own homes is dropping. So more people are renting for longer periods, even permanently. Yet rental law in Australia is geared around assuming people only rent while young and single. It’s not geared to families and others, and isn’t conducive to helping those in difficult or unusual situations.
Because rental laws are so archaic, the Victorian government recently announced sweeping changes. And one of the most controversial announcements was about the rights of tenants to own pets.
At present, in most Australian states, pets are only allowed in rental properties with the express permission of the landlord. Yet according to Daniel Andrews’ Facebook page, the following will soon apply: “Every tenant will get the right to own a pet. While landlords will still need to provide consent, they will now only be able to refuse in certain circumstances.”
As always, the devil will be in the detail. Nobody knows, yet, exactly when and how landlords will be able to refuse pets, or whether there’ll be easy ways to circumvent the new laws. Because it’s certain, if comments on Andrews’ Facebook feed are anything to go by, that many landlords are already incensed by the new proposals.
Gavin, for instance, had this to say: “This is wrong. I’ve had to replace carpets and doors because of animals in my rental. I’m not a rich investor, in fact I moved away for work so I could afford to pay my mortgage, only to come back to a house I couldn’t live in because of cat piss. Poor decision Andrew.
You want a pet in the house, buy your own house!!!”
I disagree with Gavin, and am firmly on the side of people owning pets wherever they live. Children damage rental properties too, yet leases don’t ban them. So do people who service motorcycle engines in their lounge room, or hold regular wild parties, or those who don’t mind living in abject squalor. The common denominator in damaging a property is unclean, unfair people: not pets.
And perhaps Gavin has never been in the situation Jason and his family recently found themselves in. Jason and his wife have a son, Zac, with cerebral palsy. He’s a normal, feisty 10 year old, but uses a wheelchair and struggles with fine motor skills. He also has trouble making friends sometimes, because being in a wheelchair can be isolating at that age. So Zac’s parents jumped at the chance to get him an assistance dog, for companionship and to help with simple tasks like opening doors and picking up dropped objects.
Until, that is, the landlord of their Sydney rental point-blank refused to accommodate their request, even after being given documentation outlining how well-trained and clean the dog would be. Jason got the dog anyway, hoping the landlord would relent. He didn’t, and eventually, after much correspondence and a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, Jason and his wife felt, for the sake of their mental health, they’d no choice but to give up and move house instead.
It wasn’t easy finding another home to accommodate both a wheelchair and the dog at Sydney prices, but they managed it. So now Zac has his Labrador Sunny, who sleeps on his bed and is a much loved companion. Yet what this family went through to help their son was appalling, and so unnecessary.
So I welcome the proposed changes to rental law in Victoria. I hope other states will follow suit soon. I hope the laws will be drafted in a way that truly benefits tenants, particularly those who most need extra support. In fact, I hope more landlords in general will come to understand that happy tenants, who’re not so much at the mercy of the power trips and lack of compassion some landlords and agents display, are more likely to look after properties well.
And I hope more people will come to see that owning a pet is a human right that conveys enormous physical and emotional benefits, so is good for the whole country. In nearly every other developed country in the world, pets are a normal part of renting, and it’s not permitted to ban them. And as far as I know, the sky hasn’t fallen in in any of those places.
People deserve their pets. Let’s get this done.