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Why I back pets for renters

Laura Kiesel, a longtime Arlington resident whose articles and essays have been published in national magazines, teaches writing in greater Boston and founded the environmental grassroots organization Save Arlington Wildlife. She tells why she supports Article 17, addressing no-pets policies for renters.

freya 042324

Her name was Freya, at right. Not quite 3 years old, she was a mixed-breed dog with a sleek black-and-white coat, big brown eyes and a perpetually wagging tail. Despite her youth and sweet nature, just a few weeks after she wound up at animal control in January, Freya was brought into the back room and injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital.

Freya thus became one of the thousands of dogs and cats euthanized in our region every year because of a lack of pet-friendly housing. 

It’s easy to judge people who relinquish their animals, yet I know from personal experience that these situations often can become desperate.

On waitlist, but a catch

In 2011, my name came up on the waitlist for an affordable-housing unit with the Housing Corporation of Arlington. But there was a catch: The HCA representative informed me that I needed to give up my cats.

My teaching salary at the time didn’t afford me many rental options.

However, the idea of giving up my two cats – especially as I had just had several deaths in my immediate family – was intolerable. I was forced to forfeit the apartment. I wrote about the experience for Spare Change News.

A year later, I nearly became homeless as I struggled to find a place on the private market that would accept my two cats. By the time my name came back up on its waitlist again, in 2014, HCA had repealed its no-pet policy, and so I was able to move in. However, in 2021, I had to leave HCA housing because of my disability, which rendered me unable to live on the top floor anymore.

ESAs: Law vs. practice

I thought that this time, it would be easier finding a new place with my cats, as I now had a letter from my doctor affirming their roles as my Emotional Support Animals. ESAs, along with service dogs, are exempt from no-pet policies under state and federal Fair Housing laws.

Despite the law, I was rejected so many times from units with no-pet policies once I mentioned my ESAs that I lost count. I eventually stopped looking at units with no-pet policies, which delayed my move by months -- and worsened my health.

My struggles are common among renters who have animals. Arlington resident Tasha Pleasant. an early childhood educator, has also experienced challenges finding affordable rental housing that will allow her two cats. According to Pleasant, her cats were critical in helping her cope with the death of her father six years ago. “I honestly don’t know what my life would have been like had I not adopted them,” Pleasant said.

ASPCA study

A comprehensive study from the ASPCA conducted in 2015 found that households with incomes under $50,000 are most likely to have to surrender a pet due to lack of viable housing options. 

This has only gotten much worse since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

The problem is that no-pet policies deprive renters – and, included in that, the disabled and BIPOC folks, who disproportionately make up this demographic – of the unconditional love of companion animals. It also treats these animals as disposable objects, rather than the living, sentient beings they actually are and who deserve to remain with their human families rather than die lonely and afraid at the hands of strangers.

Yet, these are the frequent outcomes of blanket no-pet policies, making such policies both inhumane and inequitable.

What Article 17 seeks

This is why I support Arlington Town Meeting Article 17, which would prohibit blanket no-pet policies in Arlington in commercial rental housing where the owner does not live on the premises.

“Should Article 17 pass, there is no doubt that there would be a positive impact on adoption potential, resulting in more solutions to reduce [euthanasia] outcomes both locally and nationally,” said Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy at MSPCA, the lead endorsing organization of Article 17.

Passage of Article 17 would not mean that landlords couldn’t take reasonable measures to protect their properties by screening out irresponsible pet owners. It would just mean that a commercial landlord could not automatically reject otherwise ideal rental candidates simply because they have a companion animals (or give them the terrible ultimatum I was given by HCA in 2011).

Studies show that there is no substantial difference in damage done to a unit where pets reside and that pet owners actually make more stable and responsible (and therefore more profitable) tenants. For the thousands of Freyas who will be killed for no other reason than lack of housing, and for the many people like me who deserve both a roof over our heads and to keep our families intact, I urge Town Meeting members to vote in favor of Article 17.

This viewpoint was published Thursday, April 23, 2024.

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