Please can we have a cat?

Ned Cutcher • 19/04/2016

Renting with pets is risky, you've got to be responsible in ways that others do not. Unlike tenants, home owners can't be evicted for failing to train a dog not to bark at passing traffic, and they don't really have to be concerned about the damage their pets might cause - at least, not as far as it might affect other people. But because home owners are considered bona fide grown-ups, we let them decide for themselves whether or not to keep pets. Tenants, on the other hand, are apparently not to be trusted with such decisions without the blessing of a landlord.

To many tenants, it might seem a little outdated to speak in such terms, but we reckon we're on pretty solid ground. Even as recently as November last year, NSW Fair Trading reminded us that "historically, renting has been seen as a short term option - a stepping stone to home ownership", and that the rental market was "previously dominated by young people". This is reflected in our renting laws as much as in conventional expectations of our travels along the housing continuum, which haven't yet caught up with reality. Renting is still thought of as transitional, the domain of young people who haven't yet settled down, or hapless old fools whose very circumstances prove they're not up to the rigours of grown-up decision making. But that's okay because landlords - our "mum and dad investors", no less - are there to make the hard decisions for us.

A tabby cat standing in a cardboard box inside a home

Home ownership, of course, is the path to unrestricted agency. Evidently some magic happens the day you take on a mortgage and truly come of age, whereupon all your choices become sensible and responsible. Hence, it doesn't matter that a homeowner's dog barks all day and digs holes under the fence - they're entitled to keep one and we trust they'll do the right thing by their neighbours eventually.

No doubt there are landlords who are happy to rent to tenants with pets. After all, animal lovers come in all shapes and sizes. There are those who might not really mind either way, though won't really think about it unless you ask them. But most landlords operate with a blanket policy, insisting upon setting this most basic of house rules for their tenants: no pets allowed.

It may come as a surprise that there's nothing in New South Wales' renting laws that directly supports this. There is no legislated requirement for a tenant to seek their landlord's permission to bring a pet into the household. On the contrary, there are rules about a tenant's right to "peace, comfort and privacy in using the premises" that should extend to the question of keeping a pet. But there are also rules that allow landlords to impose certain terms in a residential tenancy agreement if they "permit the tenant to keep an animal on the premises", which prompts landlords not so much to include terms allowing pets to be kept on the premises but to insist upon the outright exclusion of any prospective tenant who intends to bring a pet to live with them.

There are well-worn arguments circulating around in an effort to explain this. Pets cause damage, pets cause a nuisance, etc etc. But none of these arguments presents a problem that our renting laws aren't already equipped to deal with. Tenants are responsible for their pets, just as they can be responsible for any silly little thing a guest might do having popped around for drinks on a Saturday night. If a tenant's pet causes damage, or a nuisance, then the tenant will be in breach of their residential tenancy agreement and required to make good. A number of remedies will be available to the landlord, including termination of the tenancy and compensation for any loss arising from the breach, unless the tenant is somehow able to resolve the matter by other means - such as removing the pet from the premises. This, it must be said, is a very strong incentive for tenants to take good care of their pets, and their properties, and to adopt a responsible attitude all around.

Faced with such responses, conversations about tenants and pets tend to degenerate fairly quickly. There's always that one person who rented a place out to a pet lover only to find the carpets were no longer brand new at the end of the tenancy, and another who lived downstairs from a guy who kept a rottweiler in a two-bedroom apartment while he went off to work every day... These inevitably lead to more philosophical objections, such as "I'm the one paying off the asset - I'm assuming all the risk. What about the neighbours? The welfare of the animal? Tenants are all care and no responsibility".

Of course, this brings us straight back to the issue at heart - tenants are not-yet grown-ups, and landlords are our mums and dads. Of course we should defer to them on questions of responsibility. Of course we should.

Only, we're not buying it. As more and more people are excluded from home ownership because of the extraordinary costs of entering into a mortgage, we are having to find other measures of becoming a grown-up. Finishing our studies, holding down a job, forming relationships, having families... all things we can do regardless of whether our home is rented or bought on borrowed funds. So, too, should be our choices about living with pets.

A simple change to the law is needed: landlords should be prevented from including "no pets" clauses in residential tenancy agreements. Whether or not to keep a pet should be a matter for the occupants of the home, not the landlord. Tenants should be free to make this choice responsibly.

As it happens, our renting laws are currently under review.  The Hon. Victor Dominello, Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation, who is responsible for NSW Fair Trading, is required to table a report on the Act to Parliament in June this year. In the lead-up to this review, the Tenants' Union produced a report outlining a number of other changes that need to be made to the law. To help us keep focus on this issue, without losing sight of many other things, we've taken the text from this report and turned it into a wordcloud shaped like a cat.

Oh yes, we did...