Pitter patter towards pet-friendly homes

Leo Patterson Ross • 11/01/2023

and Riley Brooke, Policy and Campaigns Officer

On Sunday, NSW Labor announced the position on pets and renting that they plan on taking to the March NSW election. Billed as a plan to streamline the process for renters to apply for landlord permission to have a pet, the proposed model would see the introduction of a standardised form for tenants to lodge with their landlord requesting consent for a pet, followed by a period of 21 days in which the landlord must provide a detailed response. If a renter does not hear back in the 21 day period, the request will be automatically approved.

This model looks similar to the rules surrounding pets and renting in place in Queensland. Under the Queensland model, there is a list of specific grounds on which the landlord can refuse permission to keep a pet. When a renter applies for permission for a pet, the landlord can respond in writing providing one of these reasons for refusal. Then, if the renter disagrees with the landlord’s reasons for refusal, the renter can choose to go to the Tribunal to challenge the refusal.

A model like this would be a great improvement on the status quo for renters with pets in NSW. Right now, landlords can refuse renters’ requests to keep a pet for any reason, or no reason at all, and can write blanket ‘no pets’ clauses into tenancy agreements. It’s important for NSW renters that the law becomes fairer for renters with pets. 

A lack of pet-friendly rental properties can lead to significant risks in situations where a person who has a pet is trying to escape domestic violence. It can also lead to poor animal welfare outcomes as loved and wanted animals may be surrendered to shelters or become homeless with their owners. More broadly, people love our pets: pet ownership in Australia is among the highest in the world, and keeping pets can significantly improve our physical and mental health and wellbeing. The Tenants’ Union is supportive of moves to make it easier for renters to keep pets in NSW, and the adoption of a model like the one outlined by NSW Labor on Sunday would be a step forward.

However, as we set out in the Tenants’ Union’s submission to the recent NSW Government consultation on keeping pets in rental homes, while a model like this would be an improvement on the current model in NSW, it would still leave renters with significant barriers to renting with pets.

The Tenants’ Union of NSW supports a model where a landlord can only refuse permission or challenge the keeping of a pet if they, the landlord, obtain a Tribunal order allowing them to do so. This is a model similar to those that apply in Victoria, the ACT and the NT. 

In the ACT, for example, a renter can apply in writing for a landlord’s consent to keep an animal. The landlord is only able to refuse consent, or impose conditions, with approval from the Tribunal. If the landlord does not apply to the Tribunal within 14 days of receiving the renter’s application, the landlord is taken to consent.

So, why is it important whether the onus is on the landlord or the renter to take the matter to the Tribunal?

Landlords generally initiate Tribunal proceedings at a much greater level than renters – over three quarters (77.7%) of all Tribunal applications for tenancy matters in NSW are made by landlords. Renters face many barriers in accessing the Tribunal, such as financial and time constraints, a lack of confidence to navigate Tribunal processes, and concern about potential retaliation for accessing the Tribunal. More broadly, there is a significant power imbalance between landlords and renters. 

A landlord refusing to allow a tenant to keep a pet is seeking to remove the tenant’s autonomy in their own decision-making, in participation in generalised cultural norms of Australian society, and carving out elements from the private property right to possession and existing contractual rights to peace, comfort and privacy. These carve-outs should not be done lightly. If a carve out is justified, it should be justified by specific evidence of the unacceptable risks posed to the property or other contractual obligations. As with other civil disputes, it should be for the person who seeks to restrict another person’s actions (the landlord) to present their case, not for the person whose actions are being restricted (the renter) to spend the money and time to argue for their rights.

The responsibility for applying to the Tribunal should be placed on the party attempting to stop someone else live reasonably in their home, within the terms of the rest of the contract, and with greater resources and demonstrated ability to access the Tribunal – landlords.

A second part that remains unaddressed is an issue that has been reported by Victorian tenants - if you disclose you have a pet in your application, you can find yourself at the bottom of the pile. Some commenters have made this very explicit: 

That means it is still not safe for tenants to have open, honest discussions while finding a home - making it more likely that there will be conflict when the renter seeks to bring a pet in.

With the issue of pets and renting on the agenda right now in NSW, there is a real opportunity for changes to be made to NSW renting law to make the rules fairer for renters with pets.  Whoever forms government following the March election should recognise that rather than adopting half-measures mirroring the flawed rules in place in Queensland, NSW now has the opportunity to lead the country by implementing a robust and genuinely fair system for regulating the keeping of pets in rental homes.