Being a renter shouldn’t preclude pet ownership, but for a huge number of us that do rent, a pet is out of the question. It’s time the status quo changed, writes Charlotte Muru-Lanning.
According to his adoption records, my cat was rescued, along with the rest of his huddled litter, from under a house in Whangārei before being relocated to a pet shop in Tāmaki Makaurau. When I adopted him three years ago, as a ridiculously minute kitten, I was living with my parents. We drove him home and after a quick discussion, named him Che.
These days, Che is far less tiny, and most of his waking hours are dedicated to exploring his suburban surroundings and, more importantly, patrolling the driveway. When the rest of us are eating dinner, he sits patiently among the conversation on a spare stool with his tail draped across his feet. I treasure the 597 photographs of him that I have saved on my phone. Even more so because, despite being my cat, I don’t get to see him often.
The plan was always for my cat to live with me, but the last two rentals I’ve lived in haven’t allowed pets. So Che still lives with my parents. It’s a direct result of the default position when it comes to rental properties in New Zealand: no pets.
When the Residential Tenancies Amendment Act 2020 was being discussed in parliament, it seemed there was hope for those of us with pets or who were keen on adopting one. Within the reforms – which aimed to better balance security and stability for tenants with the interests of landlords – were proposals to change the law so that more tenants would be able to have pets in rental properties.
When the final bill was passed, it was one of the significant updates to our rental regulations in years: giving tenants more rights to make minor changes to homes, removing no-cause terminations of tenancies and allowing the Tenancy Tribunal to suppress names of parties in decisions. Glaringly missing from what was served up was any mention of pets of any kind. That’s despite 41% of all New Zealand households owning at least one cat, and 34% owning a dog. And the government’s reason for this omission was that it caused too much debate, and more time was needed to come up with a solution.
There are plenty of examples overseas where tenancy law takes a far more humane approach to pets. In the Australian state of Victoria, for example, following amendments to their tenancies act made in 2020, the default became that pets are allowed in rentals. Since the reforms, landlords have been unable to “unreasonably refuse consent to a renter wishing to keep a pet”, and must gain approval from the tribunal to do so. In Germany, landlords are not allowed to impose a blanket ban on pets of all kinds. Similarly, in the Canadian province of Ontario, landlords cannot evict tenants for pet ownership under most circumstances.
I can say from experience that even without the addition of having a pet, it’s wildly stressful trying to find a rental in this country. When you start adding up requirements around what you can afford in rent, move-in dates, accessibility needs, proximity to schools or offices, the pool of what’s available starts to shrink very quickly. Having a pet only compounds that uncertainty and instability for those looking for a place to live.
When I surveyed Trade Me rental listings two weeks ago, just 14% of the 9,466 rentals available across the country had checked the option “pets OK”. That percentage was far worse in Northland, where just 5% of the 134 rentals were pet friendly, or in Otago where 6% of the 461 available properties were. If you’re after a rental in Gisborne, you’d be entirely out of luck – not one of the rental properties listed at the time allowed pets. Even in cities with above average numbers of pet-friendly rentals, the options were abysmally limited. Of Canterbury’s 933 rentals, 23% were pet friendly, and around 30% of the 20 rental homes in Marlborough allowed pets.
By the same token, that struggle to find a home is echoed by a large number of animals in Aotearoa. Animal shelters across the country have reported being at or near capacity this year. It’s not a new issue, but it’s likely being compounded by the cost of living crisis, staffing issues and housing instability. Knowing that, it seems absurd that we wouldn’t do more to remove unnecessary barriers to pet ownership to help alleviate that pressure. It’s good for animals, it’s good for communities and it’s often really great for the person who adopts them – endless studies have shown how having a pet can reduce stress levels, anxiety, insomnia and depression.
Our lack of tenancy rights for pet owners is often justified as a rational response to niggly insurance requirements, the cap on bond payments and rules around wear and tear. The thinking goes that the onus put on landlords for any potential damage caused by pets would be too high. But when so many people in this country are blocked from owning a home (at the immense benefit of a few), they shouldn’t additionally be locked out of a future with a pet, and all the joy that they can bring.
As renting in New Zealand morphs from something that was once largely transitional and temporary, to something an increasing number of us wonder if we’ll be doing forever, the status quo around pets in rentals becomes ever more unconscionable. The omission of pet tenancy rights is just one miserable symptom of our attitude toward renters in this country. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s an attitude that’s relentlessly and unnecessarily cruel.
These days, I see my cat about once a fortnight. I’m lucky that my parents can look after him. And I’m lucky that we live in the same city. Still, most days I miss the ineffable energy that an animal brings to a home, the certainty of a good night’s sleep that comes with a cat curled up at the end of the bed and the cheer of returning home after work to a tiny animal.
Instead, I arrive home most nights to my animal-less flat and walk past the cat door that was crudely sealed shut with putty before my flatmates and I moved in.
Rent Week 2022 runs from September 27 to October 2. Read the best of our renting coverage here.